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May 09, 2012
The Scream
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

The eyes and ears of the world were on Sotheby’s New York late in the evening of May 2nd. There at the famous auction house, the 1895 version of Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream” was purchased by an unnamed buyer for almost $120 million dollars. It was “The Scream Heard ‘Round the World, quipped the Huffington Post” (Patricia Berman, May 4, 2012).

Modern Art and German Expressionism

Around the turn of the twentieth century, when Europe was experiencing great unrest, artists expressed political and social tension in works permeated with gloom, foreboding, and fright. According to R. Kevin Seasoltz, “much twentieth-century contemporary abstract art was pessimistic, turned in on itself, reflecting cultures that were often deeply disturbed and disturbing” (Kevin Seasoltz, A Sense of the Sacred, 315).  Instead of depicting recognizable content–nature, animal and human depictions, modern art appeals to color, line, and shape to express interior states of subjective experience with little or no appeal to the senses. Some modern art forms express the meaninglessness of life.

The forerunner of German Expressionism, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (d 1944) developed a morbid pietism bordering on insanity due to negative family influences. His temperament emerges with horrifying force in “The Scream,” from which the lonely, tortured, and despairing cry of the main figure reverberates visibly throughout the space of the painting. “The Scream” transcends the autobiographical and explores contemporary man’s sickness of soul.   

The agonized figure stands in front of a swirling, bloody red sky, painted with bold brush strokes.  The colors shock.  Their power is intended to have an emotional impact not only on the eye but more importantly on the psyche. The figure is cast into a frightful tormented pose standing in isolation from the remainder of the painting. Another person stands on the bridge paying no attention to the figure that imposes itself on the viewer as if to say: “Pay attention to me, to whoever I am!”

Stripped of identity, the faceless face is shaped–it seems to be carved–as an upside down triangular, skeletal form.  The sunken, hollowed-out eyes gape into nothingness. The wide-open mouth, with hands cupping the ears, seems incapable of dealing with whatever lurks beyond.  It is not a question of painting a human being but of painting an anti-human. There is little to soften the psychological impact. 

“The Scream” has come to symbolize the nihilism of modernity that rejects joy, hope, beauty, continuity and  tradition, rules, methods of the past,  symbolic meaning and positive affectivity, so filled is it with  man’s futility, alienation, and fear of death.  Man screams for meaning, for hope.  On his own, what is left to him is nothing—a nihilism of dread.

“The Scream” and a Musical Counterpart

Today, the dissonance of “The Scream” strikes a reluctant yet accepting chord.  The triple breakdown of family, church, and government provides the raw material for artists to express this massive societal problem either in the darkness of nihilism or in the light of Christian hope.  With nihilism, nothing is resolved.  

Curiously, in Tchaikovsky’s last movement of his Sixth symphony, the “Pathétique,” the mood resembles that of “The Scream.”  Toward the end, the violins screech upward hysterically but break off, limp and exhausted, leaving only the dark double basses to end the symphony by descending into utter silence. Nine days after Tchaikovsky conducted the symphony on October 30th, 1893, he died.  Some say that the cause of death was brought about by alcohol and water contamination, but the general theory points to suicide brought on by depression.

Difficult Subjects Portrayed in Art

Greek plays reveal the brokenness of the human spirit, but they also exalt its heroism.  In the film, “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” Dorian, an aesthete, corrupts himself into a debauchee.  Oscar Wilde treats sin masterfully, if in a horrific way.  Similarly, in “Othello;” Iago’s pathological greed, jealousy and envy render him a despised character.  Yet in the hands of Shakespeare, evil, though repulsive, is artfully depicted. “The Scream” is a disturbing but masterful and honest work. Apparently convinced of his theme, Munch painted four versions of it.

The Craze over Nihilism

Now universally recognized, “The Scream” has been incorporated into what used to be known as common knowledge.  After all, a very public display of a $120-million purchase is not nothing to ignore.  The painting can legitimize one’s feelings and give credence to what many feel about life with its Sartrean “no exit.” It permits the viewer to admit, “It’s alright to feel this way.” If we are honest, don’t we all, at times, want to scream at someone, at something, at ourselves and the way things are or could have been? The painting’s universal message confirms what many people want to do—rarely, often, or always. 

On the morning after the sale at Sotheby, the Church celebrated the feast of Sts. Philip and James.  In the gospel reading for the day, Philip asks Jesus, Where is God?

Whoever sees me sees the Father, Jesus answers. (Jn 14:8-9)

If “The Scream” cries out to the world with questions like: Is this all there is? What is the meaning of it all? Where shall I go for comfort to my pain?

Why not pray with the Psalmist: “Out of the depths I cry out unto to you, O Lord, Lord, hear my voice”? (Ps 130:1) This is not nothing, but the very opposite of nothing.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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