Last summer I had the chance to see two versions of a work by Norway’s greatest artist, Edvard Munch. If you go to Oslo you can see it in one version at the National Gallery (no photos, please) and another in the lovely Munch Museum (cameras welcome). In recent years each of them has been stolen and recovered. A third version of the work has been on view this year at MoMA.
Of course, you know the picture—it’s an icon of modernity’s anxiety. The figure has been thought to depict a psychiatric patient, or even a mummy.
Munch himself spoke of his synesthetic response to the world, where ideas and words presented themselves in chromatic terms. His recollection of a particular urban moment inspired him to create the various versions of a visual arrangement that would become synesthesia’s poster child and one of the masterworks of Scandinavian art.
English speakers know this image in reproduction—on T-shirts, key rings, and inflatable pillows—as “The Scream.” For German speakers it’s “Der Schrei.” Munch himself allowed the world to know the work as “Der Schrei der Natur”—the cry (or scream) of nature.
I must have looked at commercialized versions of Munch’s painting thousands of times, but only last summer did I stop to think about the wavy color bands that oppress the composition’s central figure and their relation to the work’s title.
Does it matter what a picture—this one, any one—is called?
Looking at Munch got me thinking about fluid vowels and hard consonants. You can hear how the English word scream ends with an m-sound. Close your lips and you can sustain that sound for a long time (recall those pre-Warhol Campbell Soup Kids who thought chicken and vegetable was “mmm-mmm good!”).
In German the word Schrei ends with an open vowel and an open mouth. You can extend the word Schrei with something close to either the ah sound or the ee sound. (All lieder singers know the ins and outs of extendable vowels.) Scream and Schrei are words, or names for things, that don’t shut down acoustically—their shapes permit sound to continue. In Munch’s painting—a work of art that’s in some sense about signals and vibrations—this seems a not insignificant detail.
If you visit Oslo, though, you’ll see Munch’s work identified by its Norwegian name: Skrik. The closest English word to Norwegian skrik is the cognate shriek, in turn related to German Schreck, or horror (sorry, Dreamworks fans). For English speakers, skrik—which names the same idea as scream—sounds pretty much the way it looks: the Norwegian skrik ends with an abrupt k-sound, as if it’s been caught up short.
What does this have to do with Munch’s painting? Maybe nothing. But skrik is a word that suggests the shuddering force of vibration—just saying it feels as if the brakes have been slammed down, your body thrown forward and bouncing back. That seems to correspond to Munch’s bands of color—discrete visual zones surrounding the painting’s figure—in a different way than the English word scream.
To my ears, the word scream suggests alarm but also a continuous emanation, maybe an emanation of sound-color-feeling. Skrik, by contrast, offers a short, sharp shock; it’s the sound of fingernails on the existential blackboard.
Would we see Munch’s work differently if we knew it as Skrik?