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April's Final Scream: Edvard Munch at MoMA

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Edvard Munch's The Scream (1895) will remain on view at MoMA for one final month. If you have not attended the exhibition yet, by all means go; however, proceed with caution. While Munch's ubiquitous screamer can be found on countless coffee mugs and computer mouse pads, there is nothing light or humorous about the work. Munch's oeuvre is dark and disturbing. The exhibition is a chamber of pictorial nightmares; I walked away with the same spine tingling sensations I felt after my initial viewing of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist.

The Scream is an iconic piece of art, a Norwegian Mona Lisa, if you will. The Scream on view at MoMA is one of four versions made by Munch, and it is the only version to be owned by a private collector. The other versions silently scream in museums throughout Norway. I viewed The Scream on a gray, rainy Manhattan afternoon at the end of a long trek through the museum. I was exhausted and felt a chill, but I was not leaving without paying this particular exhibition a visit. As I stood in the line that shifted forward at timely intervals, I began to lose myself in my thoughts -- some uplifting and some dreadful. I began to enter a dreamlike state, and as I entered the room of muted gray tones, I dipped further into myself, until, out of the darkness of my own mind, I stood face to face with a nightmare visualized in pastel. I did not realize at the time that my particular drowsy, dreamy state made for ideal viewing of the work before me.

The Scream depicts a figure standing against the railing of a bridge overlooking a body of water and the adjacent coastline. The figure's lithe body is cloaked in a blue garment. He holds his hands against a skeletal head. His face is composed of abstract lines and shapes which denote a gaping mouth and wide, open eyes. Filled circles designate his nostrils. He stands on a bridge of harsh parallel lines which contrast against the swirling, chaotic nature of the environment around him. The ghostly figure's curved body mimics the swirling water and sky around him, visually separating him from the bridge and men in the distance. Munch, on the inscription appearing at the bottom of the frame, writes in Norwegian: "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."

Munch, in a work composed of both warm and cool shades of pastel, visualizes a crippling inner state of despair, anxiety, and dread -- an utterly Norwegian panic attack. While The Scream is deliciously dressed in all things Norwegian, from the fjords in the distance to the description on the bottom border, The Scream is a universal meditation on the anxiety and despair we all know too well, whether we feel it on a stroll at twilight in Oslo, or in our claustrophobic, gray cubicle late one afternoon, or in the car on a Tuesday morning when we're already late and each light seems to flicker red. Munch taps into personal feelings which affect nearly everyone in the modern (and post-modern) world.

Munch's works that accompany The Scream must be viewed in order to attempt to grasp who Munch the individual really was: a troubled man haunted by death from an early age. Melancholy (1891) depicts a man leaning his head against his hand amidst a rocky, placid seacoast. In the distant background, two figures, a man and woman, appear. The implication is that this man is the sad, frustrated lover of the married woman in the background. Once again Munch combines external landscapes with the internal feelings of the self: the Melancholy of the man is expressed in the haunting landscape. Another notable work in the exhibit is The Storm (1893). The work depicts a group of individuals awaiting the arrival of a tempest. They are huddled together in a gray mass; a singular individual (a woman, perhaps?) stands apart from the group in a ghostly, white gown. She holds her hands up to her face in the same manner as the iconic screamer. Is this brewing storm blowing in from the Norwegian Sea, or a storm of a more ominous nature: a storm of the mind? Munch's figures await the ensuing dread, expressed by the foreboding grays of the harsh landscape.

I stumbled onto West 53rd Street dazed and frightened. The grays of the rainy metropolis around me instantly conjured Munch and his landscapes. I bought a steaming, comforting hot dog to counter the chilling side effects of the experience. The work of Edvard Munch, although troubling, is required viewing for a lover of art, a student of Psychology, a Scandinavian enthusiast, or anyone curious to see the inner workings of a troubled mind visualized on canvas. Be sure to visit Edvard Munch: The Scream before April 29 at MoMA. Be forewarned: the work is as chilling as a stroll on a brisk winter night in Oslo.