Beneath a boiling sky, aflame with yellow, orange and red, an androgynous figure stands upon a bridge. Wearing a sinuous blue coat, which appears to flow, surreally, into a torrent of aqua, indigo and ultramarine behind him, he holds up two elongated hands on either side of his hairless, skull-like head.

His eyes wide with shock, he unleashes a bloodcurdling shriek. Despite distant vestiges of normality – two figures upon the bridge, a boat on the fjord – everything is suffused with a sense of primal, overwhelming horror.

This, of course, is The Scream, by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch – the second most famous image in art history, after Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

Everything is suffused with a sense of primal, overwhelming horror

Or, to be precise, it is one of four versions of The Scream that Munch created in his lifetime. The earliest painted version, from 1893, is in Oslo’s National Gallery. Elsewhere in the city, the Munch Museum boasts the other painted version, from 1910, as well as a rendition in pastel from 1893.

But the version I am describing, a pastel-on-board from 1895, still in its original frame, is the only one of the four that remains in private hands. In 2012, it briefly set the record for the most expensive artwork ever to sell at auction, when, after 12 minutes of bidding, it fetched almost $120 million (£75 million) at Sotheby’s in New York. The buyer was the American financier Leon Black, who has now lent the work to a new exhibition, Munch and Expressionism, at the Neue Galerie in New York.

“The most prized version is the oil painting in the National Gallery in Oslo,” says the art historian Jill Lloyd, who has curated the exhibition. “But the pastel version is incredible, because the colour is so vivid, so fresh, it’s like it was made yesterday. In my mind, it is the most intense version: because pastel is such a free medium, you can see Munch altering lines and changing contours. So it has this unbelievably charged, vital surface, which you don’t really get in the oil paintings in the same way.”

Existential angst

The exhibition at the Neue Galerie explores the relationship between Munch, who was born the second of five children to an impoverished military doctor in 1863, and the avant-garde Expressionist art movement that emerged in Germany and Austria in the early years of the 20th Century. Although the show concentrates on the latter stages of the artist’s career (Munch died in 1944), it still finds room for The Scream of 1895, which he created three years after first arriving in Berlin, where he quickly made a notorious name for himself.

It was in Germany, during several creatively frenzied years, while fraternising with like-minded artists and writers, such as his close friend August Strindberg, at a bar called the Black Piglet, that Munch created the major paintings which remain his best-known works, including The Vampire and Madonna. They were conceived for his epic, semi-autobiographical series The Frieze of Life, which transmuted his own high-keyed emotions concerning love, sexuality and death into universal symbols. The original, 1893 version of The Scream was one of 22 elements in the cycle. 

In 1892, Munch painted a precursor of The Scream called Sick Mood at Sunset, Despair. The composition – bloody sky, bridge with three figures, bluey-green lake and landscape – is strikingly similar, but the style, though relatively radical for the time, didn’t assault tradition in the manner of The Scream. The latter painting was Munch’s breakthrough, as ferocious existential anguish overwhelmed the earlier mood of polite melancholy.

An entry in Munch’s diary, dated 22 January 1892, recorded the inspiration for The Scream: “I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun went down – I felt a gust of melancholy – suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death – as the flaming skies hung like blood and sword over the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends went on – I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I felt a vast infinite scream through nature.”

The figure in The Scream, then, may be a kind of self-portrait of the artist, whose older sister, Sophie, had died when he was 13. Art historians have also suggested another source for it – a Peruvian mummy that Munch saw at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1889.

At the Neue Galerie, The Scream is the final image that visitors encounter in the exhibition, because, as Lloyd says, “Everything about it is the essence of Expressionism.”

We all scream

Of course, from an art-historical perspective, Lloyd is correct. Within the exhibition, a glowering woodcut from 1917 by the German artist Erich Heckel makes plain the Expressionist debt to Munch: Heckel’s composition, in which a man holds his temples while standing in a forbidding wasteland that seems to explode into shards of light, is obviously indebted to Munch’s black-and-white 1895 lithograph of The Scream. In the early 20th Century, this print was the most widely circulated version of Munch’s picture.

Yet it wasn’t only the Expressionists who were influenced by Munch. The Scream was the ancestor of Francis Bacon’s pictures of howling popes. In 1984, Andy Warhol made a series of screen-prints that recast The Scream in bright, eye-popping colours.

The Scream also happens to be Tracey Emin’s favourite “historical” painting: in 1998, she even made a film in which she visited a Norwegian fjord and hollered for a full minute, while the camera lingered on the water. The charismatic Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic persuaded inhabitants of Oslo to scream in public as a tribute to Munch. Echo Lake (1998), a sinister painting by the British artist Peter Doig, features a spectral policeman clutching his head in the manner of Munch’s Scream.

Arguably the most stunning thing about The Scream is the way it transcended art history to become a touchstone of popular culture

Arguably, though, the most stunning thing about The Scream isn’t its impact upon subsequent art, but the way it transcended art history to become a touchstone of popular culture. The Scream has been ripped off, caricatured and lampooned so often that it is now far more famous, in its own right, than its creator.

People who have never heard of Munch still recognise The Scream, thanks to the innumerable references that have been made to it, in everything from The Simpsons to Wes Craven’s slasher franchise Scream, with its ‘Ghostface’ mask, inspired by Munch’s painting, worn by the killers. The thefts from museums in Oslo of different versions of The Scream – one in 1994, the other a decade later – only enhanced the image’s notoriety.

In part, says Lloyd, the ubiquity of The Scream is a result of the fact that “it’s easy to make into a caricature – and that is not the case with many paintings. As an image, it is pared down to the essence, which means that once you’ve seen it, you don’t forget it: it’s very easy to understand as a visual idea. And, of course, by now, it has been everywhere: on handbags, posters, mugs, God knows what.”

At the same time, it is hard fully to explain its universal appeal. For Lloyd, it was successful, as an image, because it articulated an important shift that occurred within Western culture around the turn of the 20th Century. “The Scream is one of those images that sums up a changing point in history,” she explains. “It presents man cut loose from all the certainties that had comforted him up until that point in the 19th Century: there is no God now, no tradition, no habits or customs – just poor man in a moment of existential crisis, facing a universe he doesn’t understand and can only relate to in a feeling of panic.”

She adds: “That may sound very negative, but that is the modern state. This is what distinguishes modern man from post-Renaissance history up until that moment: this feeling that we have lost all the anchors that bind us to the world.”

Alastair Sooke is Art Critic of The Daily Telegraph

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