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‘We do not want pretty pictures’: What Munch meant by the Scream

The Scream (1895), by Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Private Collection, Norway (Thomas Widerberg)

Edvard Munch was a daring experimenter who strived to create an art of the ‘inner soul’, says David V Barrett

Most people assume that the figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream is screaming. It’s not. It’s reacting to an event: “I felt a great scream pass through nature,” Munch wrote. He created several versions of The Scream; it’s the 1895 lithograph which is in the excellent exhibition of prints at the British Museum in London, Edvard Munch: love and angst.

The lithograph is small, just 14 by 10 inches, but its stark black lines are compelling; they reach into you with a barbed shiver, conveying the pain, the agony of hearing, experiencing the scream. The figure could be male or female – it’s any of us, all of us.

The paintings of The Scream (not in the exhibition) have swirling reds and yellows in the sky and swirling blues in the walls and depth of the chasm that the figure is crossing on a wooden bridge. It’s tempestuous and disturbing; you can feel the fear and confusion of the figure. Unfortunately the four coloured versions in paint or pastels rarely travel from Oslo.

Munch painted The Scream (the Norwegian title, Skrik, or Shriek, is even more powerful) following a walk at sunset, when the clouds had been turned blood-red: “there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city … I stood there trembling with anxiety”. His extreme reaction – “it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I became The Scream” – may have been in response to his younger sister Laura having recently being committed to an asylum; he retained a fear of insanity all his life.

Born in 1863 in Kristiania (now Oslo), Edvard Munch felt stifled by its heavily conservative Lutheran atmosphere. Reacting against it, he moved in bohemian circles with artists and writers who also challenged the hypocrisy of “correct” society and advocated free thinking and free love; one was imprisoned for blasphemy and immorality for his book From the Kristiania Bohemians; another was a radical anarchist who wrote erotic novels. Munch’s powerful images of both men feature at the start of the exhibition. Munch travelled around Europe, spending time in the art capital of Paris when he was just 21, and living there and in Berlin up to the First World War.

Considering Munch’s love for British writers from Shakespeare to Dickens to Conan Doyle, it’s surprising that he only visited London once, in May 1913. But the English composer Frederick Delius was one of his closest friends until Delius’s death in 1934, and the gifted English violinist Eva Mudocci was his lover for some years; the exhibition includes a beautiful lithograph of her, The Brooch. Later in life she said that Munch “never looked merely at the surface of anything but always beyond”.

Munch constantly revisited themes: as well as the five different versions of The Scream, including the lithograph shown here, there are variants of Sick Child, The Kiss, whose versions become more passionate over time, Attraction, The Vampire and others. In his more than 60-year artistic career – he died in 1944 – Munch constantly experimented. The exhibition also includes some of the technology behind his prints, original printing plates and lithographic stones. He sometimes used an innovative jigsaw technique, cutting a woodblock into pieces, which he would ink separately then fit back together to make the print.

This could have astonishing effects. Towards the Forest shows an embracing couple walking towards a thick wood; cutting the woodblock into several pieces and inking them in different ways creates three very different versions, displayed side by side.

“Art is the opposite of nature. A work of art comes from the inner soul of a human being,” Munch said. His soul is on display in this exhibition, not just in The Scream but in all his work, including the several paintings and lithographs titled Sick Child. His beloved sister Sophie died of TB when she was just 15 and he was 13. His 1892 painting was widely criticised for its roughly worked appearance when it was first exhibited, but was later lauded as the first Expressionist work. “For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art,” Munch wrote around 1908. An early draft of The Scream was titled Despair.

Wandering through the exhibition you encounter despair, loss, grief, madness, jealousy, passion, love, loneliness – all poured out by Munch. “We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing room walls,” he said. “We want … an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.”

And yet this exhibition isn’t in any way depressing; rather, in Munch’s outpouring of his innermost heart we feel a kinship, a purging, a purifying; here is raw emotion, nothing prettified. It’s an astonishingly powerful exhibition, with its own honesty and beauty.

Edvard Munch: love and angst is at the British Museum, London, until July 21