Belinda's Bash

Belinda Naylor-Stables

Screaming Abdabs

I find art or craft that holds a message intriguing. I don’t necessarily need to ‘get’ the message, or the message can be lost in time. Just the fact that there is a message lurking magnifies interest and makes me linger longer over the piece. ‘The Scream’, an expressionist work by Edvard Munch is one such picture. It’s been hanging about for over a century waiting for the world to understand it.

Something iconic…

When Munch created ‘The Scream’ in 1893 I wonder if he knew it was destined to be iconic. On 2 May 2012 this picture will be auctioned off at Sotheby’s,New York. According to the Financial Times bidding is expected to go as high as £50 million (about $80M). Though considering its resonance and relevance, together with the importance of visual media and prize possessions in our society, the figure could double. Munch clearly felt strongly about this simple image and its intrinsic message. He drew and printed several copies of it. He did two Scream paintings (oil and gouache) and two pastel versions on cardboard. He was still doing lithographs of the same image two years later. It seems to have haunted him as much as he wanted it to haunt his audience. It’s been successfully taunting us ever since.

A sketch of Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'

A sketch of Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'

Quietly repeating itself…

I came face to face with this work, as I expect many readers did, when I was doing Art History for A’ Level. We had to sketch the layouts of artworks for the exam - and the Scream was an ‘easy one’. The title and the layout were simple to remember and guaranteed to come up in the exam. Just the sort of picture I liked!

That keeps popping up (Warhol did a Pop Art version)…

‘The Scream’ was also likely to come up at art college interviews too. I remember being asked  ‘Who painted The Scream?’  ‘Munch’, I said confidently, pronouncing it ‘Moonsh’. ‘Yes, Munch’ someone on the interview panel said, pronouncing it ‘Meurnq’. ‘And what does it mean?’ I can’t remember what my answer was – but the text book at the time was E. H. Gombrich’s ‘The Story of Art’. ‘Something terrible must have happened,’ he says about ‘The Cry’, a lithograph of the same image, ‘and the print is all the more disquieting because we shall never know what the cry meant.’

Still meaningful…

I recommend the Financial Times article, ‘So what does ‘The Scream’ mean?’ by Peter Aspeden, Financial Times, 21 April, 2012. 

Of the four Screams, the owners of the last one in private ownership may have been holding out on us. On their version the frame is decoratively painted with a poem which holds the key to the picture’s meaning. Painted in the artist’s own hand the poem describes the walk during a red sunset which inspired the painting. Munch was recovering from a nervous breakdown at the time. I’m no psychiatrist but I would guess the condition could have magnified his sensitivity to his surroundings. This perhaps explains the last line of the poem which reads: ‘-shaking with Anxiety – I felt the great Scream in Nature.’

And calling us to action…

For a second I wondered why, if Nature is crying out, it is the man who is screaming. But of course, the message is that we are part of Nature. We cannot separate ourselves from it. If Nature goes, we go too. The shrunken-head features, making us feel anxious and reminding us of death, perhaps illustrate a premonition.  The effect is to call us to action.

Last year a little girl voiced the same message in a YouTube video: ‘The Twelve Year Old Girl Who Silenced the World for Six Minutes’. Old and new media sit side by side in our newsdom. Both pressing the point home about our environment: ‘…are you doing enough, fast enough?’ (Because, let’s face it, we failed to understand what Munch was getting at for a good few decades.) And this is a hugely important question to ask now.

But I can’t help asking the unimportant question here (sorry if it feels like exam time again): Which one works for you? By that I mean which one echoes in your head, burns itself on your retina, pulls you up and makes you think, over again - an angry little girl’s rant or an anxious man’s silent scream?

Let us know what you think. Does old media or new media win the day on this occasion? Or perhaps you don’t agree with the latest interpretation of the picture… over to you…

News Flash: After writing this article, the last Scream in private ownership was auctioned to an unknown buyer for £74.15 million ($119.9M). Before that, Picasso's 'Nude, Green Leaves and Bust', portraying his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, painted in 1932 and auctioned in 2010, held the record price for artwork sold at auction - £66 million ($106.5M).


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