Munch Screams with Parody and History

I walked along the road with two friends,” wrote Edvard Munch. “Suddenly the sky became blood … I heard a huge extraordinary scream pass through nature.”

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social network spent much time this week crowing about Sotheby's auction which garnered the most amount ever for a painting.

“The Scream” has been parodied and appropriated in a multiplicity of ways, including an Andy Warhol silkscreen, a Gary Larson cartoon featuring a shrieking dachshund and an advertisement for chocolates. Of these, perhaps Homer Simpson’s Scream is the most preposterously memorable. Munch himself produced it in five different forms: two paintings, two pastels (one of which was the work auctioned this week for $120 million) and a lithograph.

Of these, perhaps Homer Simpson’s Scream, as shown above and depicted on today's Featured Video, is the most preposterously memorable. Munch himself produced his work in five different forms: two paintings, two pastels (one of which is the work to be auctioned) and a lithograph.

Its original power lies partly in its simplicity: All of Munch’s versions -- though differing slightly in media, color and composition -- are so pared down as almost to be cartoons themselves. The image is compelling visual shorthand for a feeling experienced by virtually everyone at one time or another: frantic anxiety and desperation.

There is piquancy in the fact that a large portion of the world’s most celebrated art was made by two young men on the verge of mental collapse in the late 19th century. The life of Munch (1863-1944) ran parallel for a while with that of Van Gogh (1853-1890). Artistically, they were almost exact contemporaries.

Van Gogh was a decade older, but he was a late starter. Both he and Munch started out as artists around 1880, and each suffered mental crises later on.

Out of that extremity came “Starry Night,” “Sunflowers” and “The Scream.” The sexless, schematic figure in Munch’s picture -- hearing, not emitting the shriek -- is perhaps the artist himself, as that text suggests. His drawings and paintings, decades later, of his balding octogenarian self have a similar, though less anguished, look.

Mingled Cries

“The Scream” is obviously autobiographical. Indeed, almost reportage. There were reports of agonizing sound in the district of Oslo where Munch heard the scream. Munch’s sister Laura was incarcerated in a mental hospital nearby. The cries of the patients there were said to mingle horribly with the noise of animals being slaughtered in a nearby abattoir.

Munch survived his breakdowns, Van Gogh didn’t. There’s another difference. Few would dispute that Van Gogh was one of the greatest artists who ever lived, while Munch’s reputation isn’t so clearly established. Some would argue that he is overrated. His later work, much of which is in the Munch Museum, is little known and under-appreciated.