‘Why is The Scream so iconic?’ a BBC webpage asks about what, as of Tuesday 2 May, is the world’s most expensive picture. It continues: ‘Professor Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of the History of Art at Oxford University … said it is the “sheer power of the image … the communicative power which manages to transmit … that elemental power” that makes it so iconic … Professor Kemp said a large number of iconic images are about faces and “decoding the expression”.’
Eh? I don’t think I have distorted the article and I am certainly not criticizing Professor Kemp, but how does this explain the picture’s power?
Here’s the previous owner, Petter Olsen: ‘I hope the publicity given by this sale will increase public interest in Munch’s work and awareness of the important message I feel it conveys. The Scream, for me, shows the horrifying moment when man realises his impact on nature and the irreversible changes he has initiated.’
Perhaps he was responding to Munch’s fascinating account on the frame: ‘I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.’
Yes, this is vivid, but when Olsen talks about man’s ‘impact on nature’ he is still not explaining the power of the image, how we feel when we look at it. I feel disturbed and scared, how about you?
So now, to use a phrase from the magic industry, the reveal: this picture shocks because it is silent. The title, the gesture, the violently tilted plane of the path, the loudness of the colour clashes – all are cues we ought to hear something. I know this convention didn’t exist when this picture was painted, but perhaps Munch intuited its later use: I see a speech bubble swirling round the head, leading out from the mouth. The straight lines of colour on the path rush towards us with an expansive energy that shares the natural visual language of the crescendo marking in musical notation. And our human empathy wants to go into the picture but we are grotesquely trapped outside. For comparison, the Oscar-winning silent movie The Artist has a disturbing scene of the lead figure’s nervous breakdown that smashes the very genre: a feather hits the ground with a startling loud crash. More wittily, the brilliant crux of the story – a clash of literary, auditory and visual modalities, with the added tension of whether the ending is comic or tragic – is the stillness and silence of a single word on the intertitle: ‘Bang!’. In Munch’s picture, frighteningly, the noise is trapped inside, and we are on the outside, trying to hear …
The power, I think, is that the silence amplifies the sound of our imaginings about the picture until the nothing becomes deafening.
If $119.9 million was a noise, it would be loud, but it is still only an echo of the truth of what one man imagined – and, crucially, we complete his imaginings – about what it can be like to be human in the world.