Co-Opted: Culture Makes Off With a Masterpiece

scream3

You’ve seen it. Everywhere. You’ve been seeing it everywhere since you were born.

And it’s probably safe to assume that, when Edvard Munch (1863-1944) painted The Scream, it never occurred to him that his image would become the universal, multi-purpose symbol of terror.

It also likely never occurred to him that, in the 1960s, his painting would cross the line from artwork to icon. That it would go from being a respected object of contemplation to a piece of exploitable public property—standard stock for cartoonists, art directors and advertisers. That it would illustrate editorial in magazines such as M.A.D., Ms., and Forbes. That an American bank would print it on its cheques (er, checks). That the U.S. Department of Transportation would use it to indicate hazardous materials.

scream

Munch could not possibly have dreamt that his image would make the career of a child actor (Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone). That it would become the name of a Hollywood franchise (the Scream films). That it would appear on greeting cards, shopping bags, coasters and neck ties. Beer labels, clock faces, spoon rests. T-Shirts, balloons, key chains. Gas pain medicine and toilet paper. And whoopee cushions.

scream2Munch published two different versions of his inspiration for The Scream; that he thought of it when he viewed a mummified body in a jar at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, and that the image came to him in the midst of a blood-red sunset. Whichever one is true, given the life he led, the idea would wouldn’t have been much of a leap.

He was the son of an Oslo doctor and the grandson of a priest (yeah, we won’t go there). His father was obsessively religious—to the point of mania, and insanity ran right through the clan. The family was perpetually immersed in grinding poverty and Edvard, a sickly child, spent endless hours lying in his little bed while his father read to him. Which would have been fine if the material of choice hadn’t been the tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

Munch made it to adulthood, but his best friend was a chap called Hans Jaeger, a nihilist who lived by the code “a passion to destroy is also a creative passion”, and who advocated suicide as the ultimate way to freedom. These two knee-slappers became devoted Bohemians which, for them, meant endless binge-drinking and brawling. (No sex for Edvard—the idea of it turned him off.)

But he was able to paint and, in 1892, landed a one-man show at an art gallery. In Berlin. Where his work was found to be ‘too troubling’ for happy-go-lucky Germans, and the show was shut down after one week—much to Munch’s amusement. (He did, however, become a major influence of the 20th-century German Expressionists.)

Eventually, of course, he had a nervous breakdown. But then he rallied, quit drinking and started painting portraits. He died in 1944, in Nazi-occupied Norway. By then, the Nazis had confiscated all of this work—and then they orchestrated his funeral, giving the impression that he was a Nazi sympathizer. He wasn’t, but he would have appreciated the irony.

The Scream exists in four versions: two pastels (1893 and 1895) and two paintings (1893 and 1910) (there are also several lithographs). You can see it in the exhibit Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Popular Culture, which also includes other, less-famous, pieces: The Sick Child, Death in the Sickroom, Two People (The Lonely One), Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm, Anxiety, The Vampire and Into the Woods.

But you’ll see a print; all originals are firmly locked away because they are the subject of constant attempts at theft (most recently, the piece in Norway’s National Gallery was kidnapped and held for ransom during the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer). Munch, no doubt, would appreciate the irony of that, too.

munch1 munch2 Edvard Munch, Ashes 1925 munch3

Blitz Magazine, March 1998

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