Munch 150: The Works Still Scream

This captivating documentary is the second installment of the ‘Exhibition: Great Art On Screen’ series with host Tim Marlow. An ‘event film’, the term refers to this kind of doc focusing on a special occasion, here, the 150th year of the renowned Norwegian expressionist Edvard Munch’s birthday (1863-1944). To celebrate, a comprehensive exhibition of Munch’s works is being held in two venues in Oslo from June to October, 2013, the National Museum and the Munch Museum. The film captures the highlights of this exhibition.

I soon learned too that the theatre charged more for the experience. However, the $17 ticket is acceptable. Short of seeing the actual paintings at the two venues and being free to walk around, I’ve saved a hefty plane ticket to Oslo, and I get to see the works magnified clearly on the big screen and hear expert commentary so I can appreciate even the minute brushstrokes up close. Sure, I can always wear a headphone, if it’s available, to hear the commentary while walking through the exhibition. But it’s a refreshing experience to look at the paintings enlarged on a giant screen, hearing in-depth analysis juxtaposed with dramatized biopic vignettes as I sit back and eat popcorn in a dark, air-conditioned theatre on a hot summer day.

The film Munch 150 has aptly taken advantage of the medium of the cinema. Unlike the previous film in this series, Manet: Portraying Life, which ironically, is devoid of life, Munch 150 has presented to the viewer what such a medium can best do. The camera as a guide and magnifying glass, projecting onto the big screen images larger than life, accompanied by insights from curators and host Tim Marlow, an audio-visual experience. Yes, I’ve mentioned ‘big screen’ several times. That is essentially the benefit that the TV screen or your computer monitor would not suffice.

Edvard Munch (Norwegian pronunciation: [ˈmuŋk], in English, something like ‘Moonk’ with a glottal sound on the ‘n’) was born in 1863 in a small Norwegian village. His family moved to Kristiania (now Oslo) the next year. From an early age, Munch was haunted by death and illness. He first saw his mother die of tuberculosis when he was five, and later, his beloved older sister Sophie tormented and died of the same illness when he was fourteen. He himself was plagued by frequent sickness, and at one time was near death with tuberculosis. Physically struggling with poor health, inwardly, Munch was often stricken by desires and guilt. Nihilistic thoughts added burning fuel to an already troubled soul. These all led to alcoholism, depression and breakdown later in life.

Writing and painting became his outlets. Journals allowed him to spill his thoughts, and the canvas was the visceral medium for him to release deep, psychological turmoils. His fears and anguish, all angst and pains found expression in his art.

The Sick Child

I was particularly impressed by his early work The Sick Child (1885-86), depicting the trauma he had experienced as he watched his beloved, ailing sister Sophie lay in bed frail with tuberculosis. A grieving woman holding her hand, head bowed in sorrow. It was a disturbing scene, and yet I’d appreciated the colours and brushstrokes that seemed as if they were just rendered in a free and haphazard way. From the commentary, I felt the poignancy.

The Sick ChildThe camera and commentator guided me to see the scratches left on the canvas, most noticeably on the pillow near Sophie’s face, something which I wouldn’t have noticed if I just walked by it in the museum. These scratches were troubling to look at, probably made by a pallette knife, or a hard brush. They were marks of anguish and frustration, the outburst of emotions during what must have been a painful process. Munch always left ‘blemishes’ on his paintings. Here, the scratches and patchy layers of paints on paints showed raw emotions unleashed. That was the reason the work was met with criticisms and rejections in his day. It was not pretty and neat as his predecessors had done. He was, literally, painting outside the lines.

The Frieze of Life

Many of Munch’s more well known works are in the series called The Frieze of Life—A Poem about Life, Love and Death. The Munch Museum in Oslo exhibits the paintings as a series on four white walls in a room — and here’s the unconventional — without frames. The curator commented that this was what Munch would have intended. Without the distractions of the frames, the paintings speak out loud and clear. In The Frieze of Life, Munch explored the very essence of being human, the frameless, existential experience that is universal.

The Scream (1893)

The_ScreamThe Scream is in the section of The Frieze of Life categorized as ‘Angst’. It is the most well-known of Munch’s paintings. A deathlike skull-face devoid of gender, hands covering the ears and screaming out into the void. Munch painted this after an actual experience while he was walking in the woods, hearing a huge scream inside him. He was overcome with fear. After that episode, he painted The Scream. In it is a figure that has since become the epitome of existential angst. I’d appreciated the comment in the film stating that ‘it’s an icon, not a cliché.’

The Scream made history just last May. It had set an auction record for a piece of art work, fetching $119.9 million (£74m) at Sotheby’s in New York. Almost seventy years after his death, Munch’s works still scream.

The Girls on the Bridge (1901)

The Girls on the BridgeA more delightful painting, The Girls on the Bridge is fresh, bright, and colourful, exuding a summer spirit. But even in this work, Munch depicted the struggles between innocence (white dress) and desire (red). And while we see the green clump of a tree, full of life, we also see its ominous, dark reflection on the water. In the midst of life, we are in death. Munch seemed like a party pooper, but maybe that’s why he needed to scream. Or else we wouldn’t have heard him.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The next and last installment in the series is Vermeer and Music.

Sources of images: Wikipedia


Related Posts:

Art and Cliché

Arles: In the Steps of Van Gogh

Inspired by Vermeer

Edward Hopper, William Safire: The Visual and the Word


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

16 thoughts on “Munch 150: The Works Still Scream”

  1. How interesting to look at these paintings up close through a movie lens. I love what you write about “The Sick Child” – how you may have not noticed the scratches on the canvas if you were looking at it directly. It’s interesting how the movie lens, at once creating a distance from you and the work, has created an intimacy.


    1. Letizia,

      It’s definitely an informative and enjoyable doc. I look forward to the next one in the series, Vermeer and Music. Hope you’ll have the chance to see it too. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment.


  2. Plus, your viewing experience didn’t involve large crowds all trying to look at the same thing at the same time in a small space. I usually end up getting stepped on several times on such occasions. Sounds like a marvelous film and a good way to get to know more about Munch’s work.


    1. Exactly!

      Since this is an ‘event film’, it only screened one day in June, and one day in July. I look forward to the Vermeer coming in Oct. Have to mark my calendar so not to miss it.


  3. What a wonderful introduction to Munch! Yes, that would be the perfect way to view his paintings. I, too, am fascinated by the palette marks on the painting of Sophie. Your commentary on The Girls on the Bridge puts this seemingly innocent painting on an entirely different, and more sinister, plane. Thank you.


    1. ds,

      Thanks so much for stopping by the pond! And yes, anything bright and beautiful seemed too much for Munch, who was often wrought with depression and internal conflicts. But good that he expressed them in art. He’d never had imagined his painting would set a world record in auction price more than half a century later.


  4. I can see how comfortably watching a local large screen with commentary on detailed nuances sure beats airfare to Oslo! I’m sorry to have missed Munch 150 in my area (it was shown around the end of June). Reading your descriptions of his tortured life makes me wonder how many others felt as he did only they did not have an outlet to produce lasting art.


    1. nikkipolani,

      I thought of Van Gogh. He too had an outlet, and a prolific one too. You’re right about those not finding one. Maybe that’s why art therapy is so important, or journaling, or gardening, cooking, birding… for that matter. 😉


  5. I’ve not even heard of this series. I went to check to see if it was coming to Houston (or had been here) and lo! It played today. One day only. Sigh. Well, I’m not that fond of Munch, so I’ll make it a point to look for the Vermeer.

    I do like the idea of watching in a theatre. Quite apart from the impracticality of getting to Oslo or other locales, I’ve found that some museum exhibitions can be a bit of a pain. When the wonderful Impressionist/Post-Impressionist exhibition was here, it was a must-see for me, but it was so crowded that even with timed admissions it felt a bit like a carnival sideshow.

    I remember when “The Scream” sold. At the time, I took a look at all the “adaptations” that have been done over time. Some of them truly are amusing – a far cry from the original, but clever in their own way.


    1. Linda,

      Yes, it was screened one day in June, which I missed. Glad it came by again for just another day, that’s when I caught it. Mark your calendar for Oct. I hope the Vermeer one will be as good as this one.

      And, about those ‘adaptations’, I’m afraid, just like The Mona Lisa, it’s those ‘adaptations’ that turn it into cliché. Icon or cliché, often it’s just a fine line differentiating them.


  6. Thank you for bringing this to my attention! I missed this one here in OKC, but I have located and marked the Vermeer one on my calendar for October!

    I saw the “Scream” in Toronto many years ago during the Barnes Exhibit tour. Such a big painting is really so small…


    1. Michelle,

      I was thinking about you as I wrote this post… wondering if you’d seen this one. Well, nothing beats seeing the real one, which you did. That’s great. I didn’t know The Scream had been exhibited in Toronto. Hope you can catch the Vermeer in Oct. It will be only one day I think, so don’t miss it. I so look forward to that one. Vermeer is one of my favourite artists.


  7. You know, when I read this I thought “I am so ignorant. I just know ‘The Scream.'” (And art history was my minor focus.) For a lot of personal reasons, “The Sick Child” brings tears to my eyes.

    I hope that we get this film here — It’s exactly the kind of thing I want to see. Thanks for sharing about it; I’ll be on the lookout.


    1. Jeanie,

      I’m afraid this is a one day only screening. I missed it in June, so, was glad that it came again in July. Not sure if it’ll screen in Aug or Sept. The Vermeer will be in Oct. So, mark your calendar. And oh, me too… I only knew about The Scream and just one more, The Dance of Life.


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