In Focus: A haunting monochrome printing of The Scream which bears Munch’s own description of its meaning

The British Museum is currently running its largest exhibition of Edvard Munch's prints in almost half a century — and naturally, the artist's most famous work comes under the microscope. Rosie Paterson paid a visit.

‘We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls,’ Edvard Munch once said. ‘We want… an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.’

That quotation features prominently in the British Museum’s exhibition of works by Norway’s most famous artist, the largest display of prints by the painter in almost half a century. The sentiment somewhat flies in the face of the exhibition sponsor, Viking Cruises, whose ships (drawing-room walls included) are decorated with pieces from their collection of his work, the largest private collection of Munch artwork outside of Oslo. Yet this contradiction is also perhaps strangely fitting in itself: for Munch, art was a means of understanding and expressing the angst. ‘Without this anxiety and illness I would have been like a ship without a rudder,’ he once explained.

A complex, passionate and radical man, Munch had a pronounced and lasting effect on the Expressionist movement. Following a troubled upbringing, overshadowed by the fear of inheriting a hereditary mental illness, he created one of the most famous faces in art in The Scream, a rare version of which appears in the British Museum’s exhibition.

The monochrome lithograph is surprisingly different to the more well-known, colour works. Unlike its counterparts, it features an inscription, by the artist: ‘I felt the great scream throughout nature.’

Edvard Munch on the trunk in his studio in 82 Lützowstrasse. Picture courtesy of British Library's 'Edvard Munch: Love and Angst' exhibition.

Edvard Munch on the trunk in his studio in 82 Lützowstrasse. Picture courtesy of British Library’s ‘Edvard Munch: Love and Angst’ exhibition.

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The inscription refers to a moment in 1892. Munch was walking alongside a fjord when the sky happened to turn a dramatic, blood red. That specific moment in time inspired the painting.

According to Guilia Bartum, curator of the British Museum’s exhibition, it is not the figure who is screaming but nature, while the figure is ‘reacting to nature’s external forces on that hillside.’

Gunnar Soerensen, a former director of the Munch Museum, sees it differently, saying that the image ‘could be a scream in nature or a person screaming. It is a question of interpretation.’

Although the vivid colours are absent, the lithograph’s black and white treatment is no less effective — the stark, wavy lines emphasising the sky that frame the figure beneath it. Ms Bartrum likens the lines to a tuning fork ‘resonating around the figure… When you look at it, you can almost hear a sound.’

Whatever its true meaning, The Scream has been effectively deployed as propaganda, imitated and parodied since its conception. In 1983 pop artist Andy Warhol created a series of silkscreen prints of Munch’s work, including The Scream. During the Cold War, it was used a visual commentary on the era by Time Magazine, appearing on the magazine’s cover. And even the millennial generation has appropriated this classic work: the twisted face has recently been reimagined as a popular emoji.

‘Edvard Munch: Love and Angst’ runs until July 21, 2019 at the British Museum; tickets £17/£14, members free. See for details and times.

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