Just beyond Gallery 1 on the fifth floor of the Museum of Modern Art is another room whose entrance is dimly lit, as would be the case on Broadway before the curtain rises. In this case, the pastel drawing ‘The Scream,’ by Edvard Munch is on display, and will be until April 29, 2013. (The exhibit opened four days ago, on October 24.) The drawing was surrounded by a crowd of interested onlookers, many of whom, with cellphones in hand, were eager to capture an image of ‘The Scream’ they could take home with them (bypassing the catalogue).
The reason the drawing was dimly lit was because the sole source of light was one small bulb that hung from the ceiling, about 8-10 feet diagonally in front of it. The darkness distorts the colors of the drawing, giving the impression that Munch primarily used two colors: a bright orange and its complement, a blue that was somewhere between cobalt and ultramarine.
The photograph on the cover of the 24-page catalogue of the exhibit is a much more colorful image than the actual one under the conditions the viewer is subjected to. One consolation is that unlike the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, this work of art is not protected by glass and a rope that prevents its visitors from examining it up close.
The frame of the drawing is golden and rectangular. This is a no-frills frame with no ornamentation whatsoever, yet the width of the frame (five or six inches on either side) makes it impossible not to notice. However, because the subdued color of the frame is less intense than the orange of the pastel, the frame works.
And what of the pastel drawing itself? The first painting and the first drawing of ‘The Scream’ were done in 1893. This pastel drawing was done in 1895, two years later. A total of four paintings and drawings exist of this image, other than approximately 30 lithographs that were also done. The lithographs are all black-and-white images; one of them is a part of this exhibit.
The body of the figure in the foreground of the pastel is blue like the waves, swaying back and forth vertically. The straight, diagonal lines of the railing provides contrast in both color and form. The head of the foreground figure is shaped like a lightbulb with two dots for the nostrils, two dots for the eyes surrounded by a generic eye contour. The mouth is a darker oval shape with no detail. The absence of the intense wavy lines that appear everywhere else makes the facial expression that much more painful. There is no serenity or peace anywhere. The closest indication of serenity is by the boat, but given the swirling waters it finds itself in, that serenity is not likely to last.
Munch makes an interesting compositional change in this version of ‘The Scream.’ Instead of the two male background figures standing next to each other, as they do in the lithograph and the earlier versions, the bent over figure is in front of the other figure, who is standing erect. This change makes the blue vertical line of the railing that lies between the screaming figure in the foreground and the first of the two background figures that much more important. The vertical line helps to makes the drawing’s elements recede into the background in the same way that train tracks would do as they merge into a single point at the horizon line. In this version, the horizon line is higher, which makes the railing more vertical as well. The screaming figure is also positioned more to the right than other versions.
These compositional decisions, along with a sky that appears to be in turmoil as well, makes the screamer’s pain that much more palpable. There is nowhere left to turn. No one will understand. No one can ease this person’s suffering. The emotions are even more powerful due to the crayon-like quality of the pastels (other than in the sky). A realistically-rendered scene would lose the feeling. This is a pastel drawing to be heard as well as seen. Even in the dim environment in which it is presented, this iconic image and the other Munch works of art in this exhibit are must sees. ‘The Scream’ is on loan from a private collection.