Sometimes a work of art enters your experience at exactly the right time. I’ve often declared that viewing a piece of art when you’re not in the most receptive frame of mind can forever dull the work’s power for you, but if it catches you at the perfect moment, then it can hold you fast.
In my case the work in question is Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Thought to be from 1893, The Scream is a work well known to anyone with the most basic art education. It features an open-mouthed figure on a bridge, clutching his or her face in shock, horror, and awe, under a sky that burns with red and orange streaks. It is a startling image, and one that has stayed vividly with me since our first encounter. My long-suffering art teacher introduced us, when, at the age of thirteen, I started to lean towards a more expressive mode in my own paintings.
This might have been his way of dealing with an increasingly surly and hormonal teen with fine art aspirations – showing me how greater men than I had engaged with emotional torment through paint. But teenage me just thought that it was ‘cool’ and immediately set about blindly plagiarizing Munch’s style and format. Learning more about the painting’s origins, theories of madness, volcanic ash skies, and Peruvian mummies, only whetted my appetite for the torment expressed.
Nowadays The Scream has been reproduced, appropriated, and satirized to the point of making it mainstream, but none of that has lessened its power for me. And then, some thirty years after that first encounter, watching the low mist roll down a Wicklow hillside with my mouth open, I realized that I had never properly understood Munch’s figure until that moment. Pimply, angsty, teenage me had it all so very wrong. It’s not a scream of pain, but a shout of adoration, adoration for a sublime instant in Nature too beautiful to comprehend.