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Behind the Scream

The Scream will be at MoMA for 6 months; learn about this famous work of angst before you go

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is one of those masterworks that suffers from overexposure. You’ve seen it so often on dorm-room posters, coffee cups, and mouse pads that you’re probably not really seeing it anymore at all. (There are even inflatable doll versions, a sad reality that would probably cause the image’s creator to let out an authentic howl of existential despair.)

The Scream Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Now you have a chance to wipe all those cheap reproductions from your memory by seeing Munch’s best-known work in person right here in New York. Munch created four versions of the composition in the years between 1893 and 1910, and the 1895 pastel-on-board rendition – on loan from billionaire Leon Black, who purchased it at auction last May for a record-setting $119.9 million – will be hanging at the Museum of Modern Art for six months beginning October 24. This “Scream” is the only one outside of Norway, and the only one in private hands

What makes “The Scream” more than a visual cliché? The terrified figure under a lurid and ominous sky was clearly of central importance to the Norwegian artist. You might even say he was obsessed with it. Munch wrote that the work expressed “an infinite scream passing through nature” that he had sensed, in a characteristic state of high anxiety, while watching the sun set over a fjord. His fixation on the idea that you could depict deep personal emotions on canvas and paper was both a foreshadowing and an inspiration for the Expressionist movement that followed at the beginning of the 20th century.

“The Scream” doesn’t just capture angst – it has also created plenty. Two of the versions in Norwegian museums have been stolen in high-profile, embarrassing incidents (both were later recovered), so you can expect tight security at MoMA. And now the New York “Scream” is attracting its own notoriety. Descendants of a former owner, a German-Jewish collector, claim that he was forced to relinquish it for no compensation during World War II. They want the museum to add information to the exhibition explaining that history. So far, museum officials haven’t commented on the family’s demands.

MoMA will be displaying “The Scream” in the context of several Munch prints from the museum’s permanent collection. Go, and you’ll come face to face with the artist’s disturbing inner vision – and see for yourself why it has such staying power.

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