April 17, 2012.

Approximately 14.30hrs…


…I saw and was transfixed by The Scream

Tight security as we were ushered into the inner sanctum of Sothebys.

And there it was, alone. The experience felt reverential, as we stood and worshipped this iconic representation of human suffering.

I was not disappointed, and even as I write it seems hard to believe that I have seen it, up close, and real.

The painting is more colourful than I had expected (the colours are brighter than in the other three versions), larger, and even more mesmerising than I had anticipated.

I wondered, again, as I stood and gazed, why the image draws the viewer in, what it touches, and why I found it so difficult to tear myself away.

The painting is one of a series, in which Munch contemplates and depicts man’s inner life and ‘soul-searching’ (others include Anxiety, Despair, Melancholy). Munch spoke little about the background to The Scream, although he did say that it relates to a time when he was ‘being stretched to the limit…at breaking point…You know my pictures, you know it all – you know I felt it all.’ (quoted in: Sue Prideaux. Edvard Munch: Behind The Scream. New Haven & London: Yale University Press 2005, p.152).

Yet today the painting feels less about Munch’s personal experience, and more about the many interpretations that it allows. Mostly, the words anguish, distress, dread, doom, are attached to the feelings that the painting evokes. 

In terms of illness and art, Munch suffered from both physical and psychological distress throughout his life, and spent time in institutions, at one point diagnosed with dementia paralytica secondary to alcohol. There was a family history of mental illness and his sister, Laura, suffered from schizophrenia. She lived most of her life in an asylum near the location depicted in The Scream.

When recovering from an eight-month stay in a private clinic following a breakdown, Munch believed that recovery necessitated retaining at least some degree of his psychological distress:

‘Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder.’

‘My sufferings are part of my self and my art.’ (Sue Prideaux, p.251).

Susan Sontag spoke of the Kingdom of the Ill, and the Kingdom of the Well. Mostly, we believe that we live exclusively in one world or the other, yet in reality the gap between the two is narrower than we realise. Munch lived his life bridging and embracing both. 

The Scream speaks from that in between zone that bridges both worlds, a place of alienation and isolation. The scream is deafening, it lingers and echoes in all our lives, which are more fragile than perhaps we want to believe.