"The Scream" at MoMA in the Cold Digital Age

There has been a lot of wrong-headed criticism of the internet by people who ought to know better. Which is to say, by writers. I am immediately suspicious when a writer doesn’t acknowledge the obvious similarities between words on a page and the words and images on a screen. Writing itself is an isolating technology, just an older one, and reading silently, to yourself, is an isolating practice, and a relatively new one.

These technophobic screeds surface a few times a year; they’ve tailed off some, although I suppose there will always be authors masochistic enough to make their own dunce caps and parade around in them, in exchange for money or attention. I am tired of rewarding bad behavior with my attention; my attention is a limited resource. I refuse to be outraged by arguments that haven’t substantively progressed since before I hit puberty.

That these pieces continue to appear in roughly the same form, though, tells me something else: There’s a real anxiety felt by a lot of people that’s fueling them. I find the current state of affairs frustrating: because we keep seeing the same pieces over and over, we aren’t talking accurately about what’s making us anxious. Mostly, we’re just reiterating that we are anxious.

What is sobering about the internet is not that it’s isolating per se—I find it attractive precisely because it’s got people on it—but that it feels less satisfying than in-person interactions. This much the critics have right. What they don’t have right is why.


The internet has to privilege two senses, sight and hearing, over the others. These senses are represented because they’re the easiest to reproduce, not because they’re the most important.

I’m uneasy with the internet because I’m embodied. Neither looking at a person nor listening to him is as immediate or intimate as touching him. The iPad’s existence acknowledges this in its sterile way, but we can all agree, I think, textureless glass is not as much fun as—off the top of my head—wood grain, loosely woven linen, grass, bare skin.

There’s a kind of deranged Cartesianism at play in internet culture, where we’re encouraged to view ourselves as brains, or at least eyeballs, being carted around by slabs of meat. The implicit view is that the “I” is located in the brain. Our uneasiness stems from something pretty obvious: the “I” isn’t in the brain; it’s in the brain as it exists in the meat. The body and the brain are inseparable, and the body’s needs are crucial for the brain. The internet, as wonderful as it often is, isn’t satisfying to us as full animals.

You are also welcome to read this later with Instapaper or email it to Pocket.

Full-calorie interactions usually involve touch: a hug hello, a friendly handshake. There’s smell, too, especially in the summer when everyone’s sweaty. Sometimes also taste; I doubt it’s a coincidence that many social events involve dinner or drinks. The world of difference between a video chat with a friend and dinner with her has nothing to do with isolation and everything to do with embodiment. You can’t hug her, you can’t split an entree, you can’t spill your drink on her.

The arm-waving, chain-clanking spectre of embodiment hovers around the arguments regarding e-readers and actual books. There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking pleasure in the smell of a book, or the texture of a page between your fingers. We will never be without books. What strikes me as likelier is that books will become art objects, like the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Probably more writers will explore the form of the written page.

Some writers do this already. There’s Mark Danielewski, who invites readers to flip books upside-down, and who uses the printed form of his words to alternately emphasize or undermine the action in the words. Or Julio Cortazar, whose choose-your-own adventure Hopscotch takes advantage of the form of the codex to invite readers to skip around. Or Jonathan Safran Foer, who created Tree of Codes from another book by literally cutting out pieces.

The thing is, though, the pleasure of the page’s texture doesn’t invalidate the pleasure of being able to read Vanity Fair without wrecking my wrists and shoulders hauling it around, to say nothing of not having to pay for a book which is now in the public domain. Nor do I mean to denigrate the joy of hauling around a huge library in my purse, especially when I’m traveling. If enjoying a book is based just on the words on a background, who cares what form it’s in?

The smartest writing I’ve seen on the subject deals directly with how the form affects the reader; Lev Grossman described the difference between e-readers and books as being, essentially, the difference between the codex, which is how most on-dead-tree books are printed, and the scroll, which is mimicked by the e-reader. The Bible, he said, became popular as it became a codex readers could flip through to consult, rather than a scroll that made individual passages hard to locate. This kind of observation of how kinetics matter for content strikes me as the best approach to considering online life.

People make distinctions between the online world and the real-life world, although our behavior is recognizably that of the same person in both. The difference has to do with the limited nature of the internet interaction. I can no longer destroy music through too much love, by playing it too many times, making the tape break, creating scratches on the CD or record. I can’t accidentally dog-ear an online photo, or drop it in the bath and watch the colors run—and that photo’s colors aren’t dependent on what kind of monitor I’m using. Typing in all caps and screaming demand different things from my body. Screaming requires way more emotional engagement. It requires breath—expanding my diaphragm, throwing my chest out to get enough air in my lungs—and a willingness to shred my vocal chords to be heard. Typing in all caps requires hitting “caps lock.”

I find it profoundly soothing to live with art. I like having it in my home as an object that ages and degrades with me, that reflects where it sat in the sun too long in its faded colors, or has a slight crease in the corner from where the matting slipped, or where the paint has started to flake. We’re living creatures, after all, and we’ve got to attend to our animal needs.

Watching a sunset isn’t just about looking at the way the light plays in the clouds, though that’s nice enough. It’s not just the wind that comes up, or that the air smells cooler. It’s how everything around is bathed in the light, how the whole world seems to pause.

* * *

The Scream is the most-stolen painting in the world. Today, it—a version of it—goes on view at MoMA.

Reproductions of The Scream don’t really work. I’m not going to reheat Walter Benjamin on reproduction here; I don’t really find the idea of a talisman-magic attached to an original convincing1. Just strictly speaking, there’s the practical issue of being able to reproduce organic wear and tear. Paintings are like a favorite t-shirt, worn to perfection after years, with weird stains from sweat and wine, worn patches at the hem from rubbing against your jeans, places where the fabric pilled because you habitually carry a tote bag on the left side of your body.

When I saw it, I was in Norway for midsummer, staying with my friend Adam. We’d worked together in New York for a now-defunct science magazine. He lived near the Munch Museum in the multicultural neighborhood Tøyen. Nearby was Karl Johans gate, which begins at Oslo’s Sentralstasjon, which is a lot like Penn Station but smaller and cleaner. The street, which ends at the Royal Palace, is repeatedly featured in Edvard Munch’s work. We spent my first day in Oslo, a Sunday, walking around the neighborhood. The sidewalks are embossed with Ibsen quotations in stainless steel. These words mark Ibsen’s daily walking route. I have no idea what they said.

Present-day Oslo has approximately the population of the city proper of Portland, Oregon, but over a slightly larger area: 586,000 people over about 175 square miles. It is eminently walkable; in some places, the sidewalks are wider than the streets.

We spent my second day at the Munch Museum. I suggested we go out of proximity rather than interest. I’d seen reproductions of The Scream; who hasn’t?

In 2008, MoMA and the Van Gogh Museum mounted its big Van Gogh blockbuster in New York, and I dragged myself through a seething mass of people—the kind of crowd that seems more insect than mammal—to see it. I was underwhelmed. Starry Night, the painting that launched a thousand dorm room posters, looked just like always. There was nothing new or moving. I vastly preferred Starry Night Over the Rhone because the brushwork was more obvious; it was more apparent a human had made it.

There’s some kind of halo we want to get from seeing an original, and that’s what the MoMA had banked on in its Van Gogh exhibit. So I went to the Munch Museum to say I’d seen The Scream, just like I could say I’d seen Starry Night or the Mona Lisa—not to have a reaction to it.

It was arranged in a threesome with two other similar works, Despair and Anxiety. At first glance, from a distance, The Scream was nothing special—just the thing I’d seen hundreds of times before. Then I stepped closer and the damn thing changed.

I could see the cardboard it was painted on. I could see scratch marks in the paint. The viscera of the painting hadn’t been captured by the reproductions. I closed my eyes and the gaping, mummy-like “O” of the mouth immediately flashed onto my eyelids.

The afterimage practically reeked of sulphur.

* * *

There are, actually, two painted versions of The Scream. The Oslo National Gallery has the earliest, signed and dated 1893. The Munch Museum’s is neither signed nor dated. They attribute it to “1910?” officially, though many believe it is from much earlier. (Both dates are in fact in question: the signed 1893 version is signed twice, and only dated at the time of the second signature.)

The “1910?” version was one of the paintings bequeathed to Oslo on Munch’s death, and Munch’s records were willfully obtuse. In the Munch Museum version, the wavy brushstroke used by the artist adds to the uncertainty and claustrophobia already present in the composition. The gaps in the paint expose the cardboard, the crudeness born of urgency.

In addition, the Munch Museum has a pastel version, and still another exists privately.2 This last, from 1895, is the one that has come to MoMA. This is a version that has never been stolen. It is now owned by an anonymous person, who may or may not be Leon Black, who spent $119.9 million for it at Sothebys this spring.

I bought a copy of Sue Prideaux’s Behind the Scream, which turned out to be a masterfully researched biography. A sickly child, Munch was born in 1863; Munch’s mother and closest sister died before he turned 20. His father, a doctor and pietist fanatic, provided the seeds for a king-hell rebellion. Munch lost his virginity to hat enthusiast Milly Thaulow, who was married to someone else at the time. Other members of what became his set included Swedish playwright and painter August Strindberg, a romantic rival for the charms of sometimes-model Dagny Juel, who eventually married Polish writer Stanisław Przybyszewski before being murdered by another lover in Tbilisi in the view of her 5-year-old son.

Munch later sent a remarkably half-assed marriage proposal to lover and muse Tulla Larsen after she lent him a great deal of money and then chased him all over Europe. Here it is, in all its glory:

“In my misery I think you would at least be happier if we were married. It would be a kind of home for you to bear my name—everything else would be as before—I would have the absolute right to freedom in every aspect of my life.”

They ended things for good after Munch was accidentally shot in his left hand in her presence; it’s not clear whether she actually shot him, though he blamed her for the injury. He took the shooting especially badly: it was his working hand that was injured, but also Munch—who was the kind of hot that made people lose IQ points in his presence, well into his forties, and like all attractive men, vain to an unholy degree3—resented her for “ruining” his beauty. He hid the maimed hand for the rest of his life. Larsen got custody of all their friends in the breakup.

Munch spent the majority of his life broke, drunk, and hungry, although he would eventually find supporters in Germany, allowing him to provide the care of his frequently institutionalized schizophrenic sister and the aunt who raised him. This didn’t happen until Munch dried out in Copenhagen in 1908, following an episode of alcohol-induced dementia.

During his later years, his art was denounced as degenerate by Hitler. He slept with many, possibly most, of his female models right up until his death of pneumonia in 1944 while Norway was occupied by Nazis. He left his unsold paintings to the city of Oslo, which opened the Munch Museum for his works in 1963.

Prideaux’s great care with Munch’s intellectual history and philosophy help explain something of his appeal—besides, of course, his obvious beauty.

Not that I’ve got anything against beauty.

* * *

On the longest day of the year, I watched the sunset from the roof of Oslo’s opera house. The creeping nightfall continued past midnight, pink clouds scattered across the blue sky like flamingoes in a lake. A dim version of the blue hour persisted all night, until the sun started making preparations to rise around 4 a.m. The night was exceedingly blue; I could still see without the aid of the streetlights, which had nonetheless turned themselves on.

Adam and I were in the neighborhood anyway because we’d tried to go to an art show called Bring Your Own Beamers, “beamers” here meaning projectors, not cars. There was a large, white structure composed of what appeared to be canvas, PVC and shipping containers that had been set up behind the opera house, in and on which artists would project their works. The idea behind the show was that the organizers would provide the structure and power sources and the artists could show up with their own projectors with their art—a one-night free-for-all show.

This was all fine, except that when we arrived at the show, only a handful of people brought projectors. My favorite of these few, brave souls was a woman, dressed entirely in white, who had seated herself against a wall where the Euro Cup’s current match, the Czech Republic vs. Portugal, was projected. The match was effectively played on the woman as well. A few people had stopped to watch.

I realized as we stood around, hoping more people would set up projectors, that the odds were stacked against any would-be artists anyway. They would be forced to compete with the pornographically beautiful sunset. Nature has no sense of taste or propriety and isn’t afraid of overkill, and so we gave up on the art thing and walked up the front of the opera house. The opera house’s roof slopes down toward the fjord on the outer edges and up toward the sky in the middle. We walked all the way to the top and stood there, staring at the sunset. I was blissfully untroubled by thought.

Oslo is 59.9 degrees north, which is why the midsummer days are so long. It was hard to tell while I was there how much temporal confusion was due to the jet lag and how much was simply the excessive light. I slept with a mask on my face to block out the sun, but my sleep cycle was still shorter than usual and my mood was buoyant to the point of spasticity. I fairly levitated. I was reminded of how thoroughly the environment affects animals; I was reminded that I am an animal.

Munch’s “soul painting” was an explicit response to the mannered paintings being subsumed by photography. Munch used the brush to do things impossible with a camera. Later, in his sobriety, he would use his camera to capture things impossible with a brush: portraits of himself walking through his paintings—he called them his children, so those shots were effectively family portraits—as a ghostly blur, or in one shot of a double-exposure but not the other.

Munch kept as many of his paintings as possible, abusing them in the process. He called this the “horse cure,” according to Prideaux. He amused himself by throwing his paintings into the trees or using them as lids when he was cooking, dragging them with nails or allowing them to be rained on. He considered paintings bought by the National Gallery and subsequently varnished to be ruined.

Munch adopted his horse cure from friend-turned-rival Strindberg. He was interested in the role of chance in art; whether something would last forever, or even just a generation after the death of the artist, was arbitrary. The horse cure was part of that, and he didn’t worry about destroyed paintings because, per Prideaux, “a brilliant thought never dies.”

The Scream of course features a man, reduced nearly to a skull, with skin tinted nausea-green, clutching his hands to his ears and screaming, with a hellish sunset behind him. Munch wrote, in his diary, in 1892, “I went along the road with two friends–“:

The sun set.
Suddenly the sky became blood—and I felt the breath of sadness.
A tearing pain beneath my heart
I stopped—leaned against the fence—deathly tired
Clouds over the fjord of blood dripped reeking blood.
My friends went on but I just stood trembling with an open wound in my breast trembling with anxiety. I heard a huge extraordinary scream pass through me.

The Scream is a sunset that doesn’t pass at a glance into kitsch; a rarity. The inferno isn’t immediately obvious as a sunset. It’s apocalyptic in tone, the long strokes of red slapped across the sky. It is probably the most successful expression of Munch’s philosophy of painting. “Just as Leonardo da Vinci studied human anatomy and dissected corpses, so I was trying to dissect souls,” he wrote.

The horse cure and emotional rendering of the sunset are of a piece with all of Munch’s work: art as an organic object. Munch was reluctant to part with his “children,” Prideaux writes, but when he did, he told his collectors to let them out to see the sun from time to time, for their health. His art existed as part of the world, not simply as a representation of it, but as something that would degrade and change over time, as do we all.

Munch’s paintings live carefully indoors these days, in a museum, with curators who will restore them when they are fragile, as the Munch Museum did in 2006, after The Scream was stolen and held captive for two years. Most recently restored was his work Puberty; I’d never seen or heard of it before. The painting is of a nude girl, hands folded in her lap. Her expression is puzzled, ashamed. Behind her, her bedsheets are spotted with blood—her first period. Puberty in fact hadn’t been on display for 10 years while curators fixed it up; this summer was its grand re-entry into the museums.

As people age, we have to be more careful with their bodies; the same is true of paintings. The curators had in no way destroyed the texture of the painting; it was still roughly textured and had not—at least apparently, to an amateur eye—been varnished.

In the sketch for Puberty, displayed on the wall immediately before entering the room with the painting, the girl sits with a shadow falling to her right, the viewer’s left. In the painting, the shadow falls to her left, the viewer’s right. Adam told me that I found this more satisfying—and I did—because as a Western viewer, my eyes were trained to travel from left to right. Munch had realized that the shadow could not precede the girl.

The problem with the projection free-for-all that we saw a few days later wasn’t just that the exhibit was too sparsely attended and under-produced, though that didn’t help. It was that after seeing Munch’s work, which is sensual in both form and content, most of the projections felt sterile, inhuman, uninteresting. The blue shipping containers draped in white cloth featured projections of—for instance—green gears on a black background, shifting. Some footage of what appeared to be an interpretive dance piece with text-speak lingo about “getting a real job” on it. Said text-speak lingo used “payed” for “paid” but I wasn’t sure if that was deliberate choice or a non-native-speaker-of-English issue. A lot of dancing, actually, from a black-and-white outline of an animatronic-looking ballerina, to what appeared to be a polka. A would-be fireplace of blue flame. A camcorder turned on the audience.

You could tell who got there first because those people had set up in the shipping containers, where it was darker. The shipping containers themselves were placed in a complex H-like formation, with several blank white sheets draped down for artists who didn’t come.

I was halted several times in front of paintings that demanded my attention at the Munch Museum; not so behind the Oslo opera house. The only thing that stuck out was the woman who had set herself in front of the soccer match, which is to say, the most organic projection.

The digital exhibits were textureless, unsatisfying—like most video art I’ve seen. Worse: they were boring.

I remember reading, in some formative teenage aesthetic period, something about how art is what you want to steal or destroy. These days, I find that a little bit simplistic, but it captures the spirit of the thing: evoking an emotion, making your viewer feel.

And so great art is manipulative. To do that well, there must be a theory of mind. What parts of the viewer have to be tugged or pushed in order to make them experience what you want them to feel?

The Scream captured what a photorealistic painting of a sunset doesn’t—the sense of panic and cacophony Munch felt, his “huge, extraordinary scream.” Munch’s aesthetic philosophy took the environment his viewers inhabit seriously. One day I hope to see digital art do the same.

1 Paul Rozin and Carol Nemeroff’s “Hitler’s sweater” experiments are a much more convincing explanation of the halo of the original anyway. There’s a cogent explanation of the experiments in Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgement, ed. Kahneman, for people who are interested in that kind of thing.

2As well, lithographs were made in 1895—just “a small number of prints” exist, one at MoMA, another at The Met.

3Per Prideaux: “His perfect beauty, which had served as some degree of consolation and a source of secret pride against the worm of insanity eating its way within, was disfigured…. For the rest of his life he hid his finger.”

Elizabeth Lopatto is a science reporter for Bloomberg News. Follow her on Twitter. Images courtesy of the Munch Museet.