'The Scream' links terrors of past, present and future?

February 15, 1994|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

Edvard Munch's "The Scream," stolen from the National Art Museum in the artist's native Norway over the weekend, might be considered the signature image of the 20th century. Even though it was painted in 1893, its picture of a figure on a bridge, screaming in obvious horror before a blazing background sky, has a relevance that touches the agonies of the modern age on many levels.

It is most often cited as a precursor of the early-20th-century art movement known as expressionism, whose practitioners in Germany and elsewhere expressed the human being's inner states, including psychological torment. The painting's figure in a nightmare landscape may stand for the individual facing his own personal Freudian demons or for the demons themselves -- fear, dread, guilt. The painting was one of a series called collectively "The Frieze of Life," whose preoccupation with emotional states reinforces the psychological interpretation of "The Scream."

But there are several other ways in which the picture can be interpreted. To see it in light of events and developments since its creation 101 years ago is to see in it an image powerful enough to become a symbol of an age.

"The Scream" also reflected an image of more than three centuries before -- Michelangelo's condemned man being pulled down to hell by demons in the immense Sistine Chapel painting, "The Last Judgment." Michelangelo's figure puts his hand to his face; Munch's figure grasps its face with both hands. Both share a look of terror.

But Munch's work has a more general meaning.

Whereas, in Michelangelo's day, one's idea of one's place was ruled to a large degree by religion -- the artist's images of God, man, demons and hell conformed to a given concept of the universe -- Munch is dealing with the death of the very concept of God. Or, more generally, with the death of traditional ideas, of religious, social and moral values.

The sky behind Munch's figure blazes with the modern age's destruction of what has given life its meaning and stability. If this is a proto-expressionist work, it is equally a proto-existentialist one.

The heavy symbolism of "The Scream" can attach itself to specific events as well as philosophical, psychological and aesthetic movements of the 20th century. Looking at the intense reds and yellows of the sunset/fire at the top of the painting, one inevitably thinks of the Holocaust, and nuclear bombs, and even of environmental disaster. That is not to say that Munch foresaw burning oil slicks; but we can see a burning oil slick in the painting if we want to.

The simplicity of the image lends itself to almost endless musings. We don't even know whether the figure is screaming about what we see behind it -- the burning sky and sinister black figures on the bridge -- or about what it sees as it looks out of the picture, at something possibly even more terrible.

If we now see it as looking out at us at the end of the 20th century, we can imagine the scream as being prophetic of the 21st. Not a pretty thought, but a further testament to this enduringly contemporary work of art.

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