The frieze of life

This time with feelings… and again with more feelings… again… and the next time.  To the degree when the feelings begin to feel a little absurd.  Perhaps even a little too ridiculous for words.  For the exaggerations of the feelings is easy to see but hard to understand wholeheartedly for the viewers or the readers, that is if you have not been directly implicated in the midst of the emotional affair.  I am absolutely guilty of feeling too sentimental of my life and hence the personal account in my previous posting.  However this time it is going to be a little different.  While the intense feelings are still there, it does not necessarily mean that it does not deserve a closer look (and with composure, that is.)

Don't worry, I am not about to regurgitate my personal experience as to the degree of pathetic mawkishness this time.  Instead, I am going to share fascinating stories and personal writings by Edvard Munch in visual accompaniment to MoMA's current special exhibition of The ScreamMoMA does not actually own this piece, at least not yet.  In his life time, Munch made several various versions of the same subject as you see here.  Though all of them have various alterations, such as the stance of men in the background, the intensity of the colors, the screamer's expression and even versions made with different medium.  (I particular favor the lithograph version in black and white, of which now has been made into a handsome iPhone case, if anyone's interested. ) There are just about four colored versions of The Scream known to be in existence, two painted and one pastel-painted versions housed within the collection of the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway.  Not surprisingly, several theft attempts had been made to steal the two painted versions of The Scream.  Both had been successfully compromised by art-thieves at one point, but only one has been recovered so far.  The fourth pastel version done in around 1895 just fetched a sum of $119,922,600 from an auction sale at Sotheby's, it's said to be the highest price that an art work has ever been sold under (and I am sure that will change before we can count to ten…)

Edvard Munch
The Scream (oil 1893, pastel 1895, tempera 1910)
Image composite by me

As for The Scream, apart from all the media hype and its a little too commodified image.  Since it has been reproduced as abysmally as Van Gogh's Sunflowers, for instance on canvas bags, greeting cards, umbrellas, iPhone cases, just about as popular as ketchup in America.  Meanwhile, I am not sure if most people are so familiar with the artist's writing of the actual events which prompted him to paint many of his subjects several times in his life time.

In the autumn of 1895, Munch produced a series of works and grouped them under the name Frieze of Life.  It is said that Munch preferred grouping all his paintings together in his studio when he painted other ones.  This was to set a certain mood for his works as he was most interested in conveying the emotional and psychological state of the human condition. 

"I painted picture after picture based on these visual impressions according to my emotional state at the time- I painted lines and colors that were fixed in my mind's eye -stuck to my retina."*

For Frieze of Life, Munch included Madonna, The Scream, Anxiety, Jealousy and Women in Three Stages.

Edvard Munch
Angst, 1897 (woodcut)
Photo taken at MoMA

Edvard Munch
Anxiety, 1894 (oil on canvas)
note: this one is not on view at MoMA
Like The Scream, Munch also made several versions of Anxiety and this later one on wood cut is the only one on view currently at MoMA.  Although based on similar figure / ground and composition, this one is actually named Angst.  When beginning to make this series Munch wrote: "I saw all these people behind their masks- smiling, phlegmatic- composed faces- I saw something through them and there was suffering- in them all- pale corpses- who without rest ran around- along a twisted road- at the end of the which was grave." *

This image is often described as a stream of people from Evening on Karl Johan another oil on canvas painting Munch made in 1892.  Notice how both Angst and Anxiety share similar color and background composition with The Scream.  If the waves of intense colors are as Munch described that they represented his mood and emotional state, then Angst tells a different kind of anxiety. 

In the late nineteenth century as life became more hectic in Europe, crowded street scenes were a common subject for painters of that period.  Here Munch depicted a crowd he observed on the main street of Kristiania.  Kristiania was originally named as Christiania in honor of Kind Christian VI as the capital of Norway.  Munch recorded this crowd motif with a text description in 1889 reflecting his agonizing infatuation with "Mrs. Heiberg" when he roamed restlessly looking for her down Karl Johan:

"And there she came at last …the people passing him looked so strange and unfamiliar and he thought they where looking at him- staring at him- all these faces- so pale in the evening light. He was trying to hold on to a thought but could not… I'm about to fall and people will stop and there will be more and more people- a frightful crowd… then he looked at the window high above shining as bright as gold against the dark air- looked at it almost as if he wanted to hold on to it." *

Edvard Munch
The Scream, 1895 (lithograph)
Photo taken at MoMA
As for the story of The Scream you are probably familiar already, but maybe there is still a little more to learn about this image.  Like the other works from Frieze of Life, the origin of this image could be traced back to the events of Munch's life.  As with Angst and Anxiety, he also wrote text for this image.  Munch regarded his text as equally important as to help understand the image.  When he made the lithograph version (see the image above) in 1895, he added this line of text "I felt a great scream pass through nature." *

The below event took place on a trip to Ekebergsåsen:

"One evening I was walking out on a hilly path near Kristiania- with two comrades.  It was a time when life had ripped my soul open.  The sun was going down- had dipped in flames below the horizon.  It was like a flaming sword of blood slicing through the concave of heaven.  The sky was like blood- sliced with stripes of fire- the hills turned deep blue the fjord- cut in cold blue, yellow, and red colors-The exploding bloody red- on the path and hand railing- my friends turned glaring yellow white- I felt a great scream- and I heard, yes, a great scream- the colors in nature- broke the lines of nature- the lines and colors vibrated with motion- these oscillations of life brought not only my eyes to oscillations, it brought also my ears in to oscillations- so I actually heard a scream- I painted the picture Scream then."**

I also read somewhere** that the bridge seen in The Scream over Oslo Fjord was located above a slaughterhouse and a mental hospital and the sound from both were very possibly  audible from where he was standing.  In his life time, Munch suffered personal tragedies, the loss of his mother to tuberculosis when he was five.  At the age of fourteen, his sister Sophie also lost her life to tuberculosis. His other sister Laura suffered from mental illness and his father experienced recurrent bouts of depression.  In fear of going mad himself, Munch put his energy to painting.  In so many words, Munch was not as crazy as other people portrayed him to be.  In fact, he was looking for an outlet in order to come to terms with the madness they surrounded him. 

Click here for an article about a
contemporary artist from Norway.

*Edvard Munch, The Frieze of Life (Essays by Arne Eggum, Reinhold Heller, Carla Lathe, Gerd Woll.   Edited by Mara-Helen Wood) National Gallery Publications, London 1992
**Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We are flames which pour our of the earth.  Edited and translated by J. Gill Holland.  The University of Wisconsin Press, 2005


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