Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1895
Last week one of Edvard Munch’s four versions of The Scream (1895) sold at auction for a record price of $120 million. An icon of modernism, The Scream was made by a truly great but complicated artist whose remarkable body of work produced throughout his sixty-year career put a sizable dent in the twentieth century artistic universe. This enigmatic Norwegian artist and his work will play an important role in my theological reflections on artistic and cultural practices here at CULTIVARE.
Like many avant-garde artists, Edvard Munch was fascinated and terrified by nature. Although not “realistic” in any conventional or illustrative way (e.g. Thomas Kinkade or Norman Rockwell), Munch’s work remains tethered to the figure in the landscape, however tenuous it appears to be. Moreover, Munch, also like many of his avant-garde colleagues, understood an important theological point: nature is much more than what you see, or have been conditioned to see. In 1907 Munch wrote, “Nature is not only that which is visible to the eye. It is also the inner image of the mind. The images upon the reverse of the eye.” Munch despised academic painting–the pictures of nymphs, nudes, and angels that populated the salons and academies of his day–because it presented a nature de-fanged– explained and interpreted–through excessive allegorizing and spiritualizing. For Munch, nature was mysterious, brilliantly opaque, and dangerously violent. He perceived in nature something terrible and unrelenting. It demands our life. He confronted and made sense of this demand by making it the crux of his work. This is why he often painted outside in the snow in his studio in Ekely, near Oslo, Norway, subjecting his canvases to the cold, wind, rain, snow, bird droppings, and anything else that nature could throw at it. He did not consider his paintings to be delicate objects, but psychic, intellectual, imaginative struggles with nature, and the elements gave them a patina that tested their mettle and commemorated their fight. And this is also why many shocked viewers, erroneously presuming art’s role to be comfort, affirm, and entertain, found them sickening. In his paintings, Munch peers into the maw of death: he grows old, his eyesight fails, he loses his virility, experiences the death of loved ones, and he dwells in the growing isolation and desperation of a modern life in which even the most routine daily tasks have the potential to ignite into violent confrontations with his most deepest fears. Nothing is hidden from the viewer.
A remarkable characteristic of fifteenth-century Renaissance painting is its capacity to create space. Two strokes of paint side by side can open up space as vast as the eye can see. Abstraction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reverses this development, closing space down by flattening the pictorial surface, reminding us that we are looking at a flat surface smeared with paint as well as a figure in a landscape, a vase, a sunrise. This technical, formal, pictorial transformation has theological implications. For the Renaissance artist, shaped by a sacramental worldview, a painting reveals nature to be open to grace, to complete, infuse, or fulfill it. Nature is porous, transcendent, charged with salvific potential. Yet for Munch and his avant-garde colleagues, for whom God had been exorcised (although never completely), nature cannot be allegorized and spiritualized—graced. In many ways nature becomes more remarkable, mysterious, and awe-inspiring in avant-garde painting. (The avant-garde’s fascination with children’s drawings was an attempt to recapture a second innocence, in which the child struggled to depict a fascinating world with limited skills.) But nature also becomes violently mute. The agnostically spiritual Munch, who was raised in a devout Lutheran home, makes paintings that share Martin Luther’s deep skepticism of natural theology. For Luther nature must be revealed in all its violence in order to enable a greater violence, the Gospel of grace, to overcome it. According to Luther, nature needs recreation, not completion. But Munch cannot find grace, or what he called, “a way out.” The Scream, like all of his work, is deaf and mute. Munch knew that his paintings were silent. And this silence terrified him. It became an echo chamber where his own anxiety in the face of death, a subject with which he was obsessed, can only yield a desperate, silent scream. Munch’s paintings are remarkable because they give us nature undiluted, “red in tooth and claw,” and force us to swallow it. The Scream is the sound of our response to nature’s brut silence. About this work, Munch remembers, “I felt a huge endless scream course through nature.”
Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait in Hell, 1903. Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway.
In the gospel of Mark, Jesus heals a man born deaf and mute in a manner that recalls the mystery of creation:
And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened” (Mk 7: 33-34).
On September 8, 1538, Martin Luther preached a sermon on this text that focused on Jesus’s sigh, which opened the man’s ears to hear and loosened his tongue to speak. For Luther, Christ comes to open our ears so that we may be able to hear his Word in the world. But without Christ’s “Ephphatha,” we hear nothing but the sound of death, the sound of our own anxiety. “Art emerges from joy and pain,” Munch wrote in his journal in 1905. But he concluded, “Mostly from pain.” Munch’s work destroys the veneer of aesthetic sentimentality in art that often obscures the violence of nature. It presents nature undiluted, making us yearn for the sound of grace that can overcome violence and pain that comes to us through the Word, even if Munch himself was unable to hear it.