Edvard Munch’s The Scream

This section considers the subject in art, expressing or seeing the psychological psychiatric aspects, and relating them to scientific expression. It also includes a selection of poems inspired while researching the subjects.    Read All About It!

The Scream by Edvard Munch 1893 National Gallery Oslo, Norway - image from en.wikipedia.org

The Scream by Edvard Munch 1893 National Gallery Oslo, Norway – image from en.wikipedia.org

The Scream, a painting by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, first caught my attention around 2002 when it was being used to promote a Mental Health awareness campaign. Later it was in the News when it had been stolen by art thieves. My first reaction to the painting was to understand immediately the terror the subject appeared to be experiencing. I felt it, it was exactly as the ‘acute psychotic episode’ I had experienced some eighteen years previously, – in some ways it was shocking (i.e. the reminder), in other ways it was reassuring – the artist was able to convey the dreadfulness of whatever was the emotion in a way that exactly matched my experience.

I didn’t think much more of the painting (though I kept a copy in my scrap book) until in April 2006 when I was writing to my Urologist about surgical options following discovery of the ‘frenulum’ language the year before. The picture suddenly produced a clarity that, to me, was instantly recognisable. The key was in the way the mouth is drawn. It looks just like the hole (healed up but scarred) in my frenulum, i.e. the cause of my seeking urological advice. I’ve thought more recently how this can be practically demonstrated: take an elastic band and make a little incision with a knife (or scissors) across it, but in the middle, making sure that the cut doesn’t extend to either side. As you stretch the elastic you’ll see the scream increase in volume, the more it is pulled the more painful it gets. I then saw the figure’s hands as his foreskin (in section) and the tips of his fingers as the phimotic ring. The bend in his body represents the slight loss of erection on entry as the phimotic ring and frenulum both tighten. (The head could also represent the emerging head of a baby at birth, and the scream, the labour pains).

I then considered what it was that possessed Munch to experience, and so portray, these images. The occasion is described here and in various books including Sue Prideaux’s book Edvard Munch – Behind The Scream . It seems to me that he has been walking with his two friends (a man and a woman), he has seen the sky suddenly turn blood red, he has seen the erect penis shaped prominentary in the fiord and the apparent extruding of the glans through the tight phimotic ring and the apparent recoil of the whole pelvis at the discomfort and these have all combined upon his own fears and experiences (including, maybe, fearing for his friends?) in a terrifying and exhausting way. This is all conjecture but, whatever it was, Munch, as an artist, clearly felt compelled to draw the experience even if he doesn’t, or couldn’t, describe in words exactly what was going on.

Sue Prideaux’s book Edvard Munch – Behind The Scream, adds some support to the above conjecture. Chapter Twenty-Three Where My Soul Fits In?, particularly around pages 294 to 297, poses some marvellously and remarkably objective and insightful statements, questions and words: “The sexual activity of a solitary man is, if he wishes it, the best-hidden portion of his biography”; “Maybe he did manage to keep the sex in his head”; “Maybe that is why the sexual tension in the pictures is so powerful”; “A characteristic of the erotic art is that it does not show open pudenda or the erect penis, an intensifying restraint that remains true to his earlier artistic goal to make pictures in which ‘their soul, their inner world, is the only reality, a cosmos’ and echoing earlier days in Paris with Mallarme, whose words were so important to them all: ‘To name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the delight of a poem. To suggest it: voila, that precisely is the dream.’”; “There is a charming, almost naïve sorority between the two females who are doing this or that somewhere in the vicinity of the bed, but the bowstring is loose, the arrow of sexual tension does not fly”.

Note that Prideaux uses the word ‘bowstring’. This happens to be a colloquial name for the frenulum. Munch also used the word (Chapter Nineteen The Shooting, right at the end on page 225) “I have come to the end of my tether. My bowstring cannot be tightened anymore, do you hear?”. Frenulum is derived from the Latin word for bridle. More specifically it’s like the reins part of a bridle, but painful and prone to rupture when put under too much tension, see also A Common Delusion re experience of slender frenulum breve. Another colloquial name for the frenulum is ‘banjo string’. Edvard did not write about details of his sex life other than his first experience, Millie Thaulow, page 64 “… he felt humiliated… she stroked his hair ‘Poor boy.’  The foundations were laid for the sexual act to be associated with melancholy, remorse, fear and even death.”   Some of his own words, page 152, on the picture subject were “And for several years I was also mad – that was a time when the terror of insanity reared up its twisted head. You know my picture The Scream? I was being stretched to the limit – nature was screaming in my blood – I was at breaking point…  You know my pictures, you know it all – you know I felt it all.  After that I gave up hope of ever being able to love again.”  It is worth noting that, at his core, he kept his Christian faith.

The Scream sold in 2008 for $119,900,000 remains (2013) the highest price paid for a painting at auction.

Edwin M Douglas
2006 and 2013