I didn’t go to Oslo just to see The Scream (1893), but it would have been worth it. I’ve seen a pen and ink version at Bergen, but this was the first time I’ve seen this version in the flesh – there’s a later, probably 1910, version supposedly at the Munch Museum (but it wasn’t on display) and the one owned by Petter Olsen and sold for $120,000,000 but we take this to be the original.
I got to the Nasjonal Museet on the dot of ten and did the ticket and cloakroom thing and got as quickly as I could to the right room, which from memory is 19 – upstairs, turn right and travel back in time past the immediately identifiable Nikolai Astrups to a separate room, dominated by paintings from Munch’s Frieze of Life paintings. I got the painting to myself for a good ten minutes, postponing the inevitable selfie, before first a couple of individuals and the inevitable tour group came in to disturb the calm. Rather like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, of which two were shown at the National Gallery, and Grant Wood’s American Gothic, the iconicity of the image does not prepare you for the isness of the real thing (cue fetish). It’s behind (presumably) bullet proof glass, there’s a security camera and a microphone. But then I believe it has been stolen.
Central is the sexless figure, possibly Munch himself, bulging skull, wide black ringed mouth, hands clamped over his or her ears, a dark overcoat stretching beyond the frame with a faintly phallic twist. He appears to be on a bridge with wooden fencing, stretching defiantly diagonally up and left, the boards painted in straight converging lines. In the background are two top hatted figures, walking towards us, of whom more in a tick. Behind the bridge, in scratchy blue, the landscape of Oslo and the mountains beyond the fjord. The fjord is a combination of blue and yellow-orange, merging with the right hand figure’s head so that he could almost be headless. There are at least two boats in the fjord. And then, above it all, the red, yellow and blue-green of the sky, bending ribbons of colour, very much in the mode of Van Gogh, whose work Munch aw in Paris and which was percolating European art. Of course, it isn’t quite clear where water and sky and land and figures end. Some of the paint seems to be scratched – damage at some point? – and bottom right there are splashes of white, perhaps drips, perhaps bird droppings? To the right of the canvas a brown-red bar of paint, as if he’d planned to paint a frame as he has in other paintings.
There is one final detail that is clearer in life than in the reproductions: to the right there is a church.
In a diary entry in 1892 when he notes a prose poem:
I was walking along the road with two friends
– the sun was setting
– I felt a wave of sadness –
– the Sky suddenly turned blood-red
I stopped, leaned against the fence
Tired to death – looked out over
The flaming clouds like blood and swords
– The blue-black fjord and city –
– My friends walked on – I stood
there quaking with angst – and I
felt as though a vast, endless
Scream passed through nature
The point is, of course, it is not the foreground figure who is screaming – it is nature itself. But given Munch’s romanticism and the expressionist nature of the landscape, nature’s scream is as much an expression of the figure’s emotion as it is of reality.
The painting had been called Despair, a title he had used for a less stylised image, Despair (Deranged Mood at Sunset) (1892), in which a hatted figure looks to the right over the railing and the two walkers, clearly conferring with each other, are paused whilst walking away from us. The sky is yellow and blood red, a much clearer sunset. He produced a charcoal drawing and pen and ink sketches, playing with the direction of the foreground figure, still leaning over the fence, in one turning their head towards us. In these a definite frame is drawn in. A study for The Scream from about the same time in oil gives us the familiar figure, but loses the boats and church (which is not visible in all the drawings), and one of the background figures is looking over the railings. Munch was to return to the composition, with Despair, adding an extra boat and a more blobby sad figure, downcast and Angst (1894) with a crowd of pedestrians, the nearest one being female, not to mention the 1895 lithograph and the 1910 remake.
It’s worth bearing in mind that this was part of a series of paintings, The Frieze of Life, depicting moods – despair, melancholy, angst, jealousy and above all grief – Munch having lost both parents and favourite sister by the time he came to paint The Scream. Between 1890 and 1893 he made two drawings of a man walking away from us, in one hatted, both called Allegory of Death. It seems to be assumed that this is Munch’s father, Christian Munch, but it has also been identified with Hans Jæger (a friend and radical) and Christian Krohg (mentor and teacher, also an artist). The figure is walking towards death – and perhaps this is the destination of the two figures in the versions of Despair who are walking away, although Jæger rejects the notion of an afterlife.
But no wonder the figure hears a scream.
The painting turns out to be of a real location, Valhallveien, on a hill to the south of Oslo, at Ekeberg hill, with the railings the fencing to protect from a drop to the right of the road. I had always assumed it was a bridge.
So now the details come into focus.
Boats offer a Christian symbol, the Church in an uncertain world, as well as going back to Noah’s ark and salvation from the flood. Christian Munch was a doctor, but son of a priest, and was deeply religious, disapproving of his son’s life choices. So the church has to be Oslo Cathedral, the centre of the Church of Norway Diocese of Oslo, a Lutheran denomination. Again, there is the possibility of salvation, but like the boats it is far away. The left and right balance perhaps nods to the devil and angel sides of sinister and dexter, the latter being more important.
Like all of Munch’s paintings, there is a sense of the uncanny, as always far more fearful than that of his near contemporary Astrup. If Astrup is Wordsworthian in his invocation of childhood (and I wouldn’t want to push this too far), then Munch is Blakean, but with the sense of being of devil’s party. But there is something more, to this and all his pictures, that seem less easy to grasp.