A Scream for Art

The figure of a man clutching his face, his mouth open with horror, is the center of Edvard Munch’s The Scream of Nature/Der Schrei der Natur, generally known simply as The Scream. There are four versions of the work in existence dating back to 1893, each of which is done with a different form of media, and three of which are currently in permanent museum collections. The fourth version, made of pastel, was nearly destroyed in World War II by art-burning Nazis who condemned the artist and was hidden in a hay barn and saved by Thomas Olsen along with other Munch works. The only version not hanging in an Oslo museum, the painting was auctioned off earlier this year at Sotheby’s for nearly $120 million and has now made its way to New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, where the iconic image is the center of a six-month exhibit on Munch’s work.

The Scream, which was born out of nineteenth century symbolism, also inspired twentieth-century expressionism and became one of Munch’s main contributions to the art world. The version displayed in MoMA’s exhibit features bright colors, sparing layers with the surface showing under the seemingly hastily scribbled pastel, and visible etch marks on the highly textured surface. Protected under glass in a dimly lit room and watched by a constantly vigilant security guard, this work of art drew large crowds of visitors as soon as the exhibit opened.

Aside from The Scream, the exhibit displays many other works by Munch of various media forms. Munch, whose best works were concentrated in the 1890s, was well known for his focus on psychological themes in his works – themes that jumped out at the viewers and demanded further thought and analysis.

The 1895 lithograph self-portrait at the entrance to the exhibit shows Munch at thirty-one as a spectral figure, with bones at the bottom of the portrait as a reminder of death. His head alone pops out immediately from the black background that seems to be swallowing him up. This somber representation of himself helps set the tone for the rest of his works.

Another powerful work, Melancholy (1891), depicts a man in the foreground resting his head in his hand against a shoreline background, where two miniscule figures can be spotted in the far distance – a man wearing black and a woman in white, presumably the love of our pensive man, contemplating his unrequited love for the woman marrying another man.

This idea is further developed in the lithograph Jealousy I (1896), where a moustached man  who takes up half the painting looks out in the foreground with haunted eyes at the viewer,  contrasting with the smaller figures behind him of a man and a woman happily in love.

The exhibit’s 1895 Madonna, a startling lithograph featuring the bust of a nude, erotic looking Madonna, particularly demands the viewer’s attention.  A painted frame of sperm-like objects surrounds her, with an alien-like fetus form glancing creepily out of the lower corner.

These intense and insightful works, along with others, guide the viewer through the darkened exhibit to a better understanding of Munch’s artistic legacy and a deeper appreciation of his style. This exhibit is open at the Museum of Modern Art through April 29, 2013, with discounted tickets offered for students with current ID.