It is a world famous painting. Edward Munch’s depiction of human despair and fear in all its stark agony sends shivers down my spine.
It is expected to fetch $80 million when it goes up for auction at Sotherby’s in May and I can clearly recall the first time I heard of this remarkable painting.
I was 10 years old and reading Jacqueline Wilson’s “The Illustrated Mum”, in it, the title character is in the grips of a mental illness and has countless tattoos all over her body. Whilst in a psychiatric unit she inks the scream up and down her arm, the recreation of this iconic artwork onto her skin sheds light on the dark insanity by which the character is gripped.
It is not only characters in books who suffer from the despair depicted in “The Scream”.
It struck me as I looked at a copy of the painting again that it is a remarkably disturbing image – not something one would want on your dining room wall – Munch himself describes the feelings which drove him to paint it:
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 with 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 nature. (1)
These feelings are not reserved for Munch, and it is perhaps precisely this reason that the painting has proved so popular. Most people who look upon the picture will remember the time where they felt deep despair and fear. Personally, I am catapulted straight back to a cold January night on a psychiatric ward nearly four years ago. The despair was all too visible, all too impossible to voice.
Perhaps this is the reason that paintings like Munch’s are so popular, so famous. Words are all too often inadequate to describe despair, our lexicon is limited to despair, desolation, depression – but in all honesty these words do not do justice to such pain. The pain which rips through life and leaves, in its’ wake the kind of destruction seen after a hurricane.
The fact that this painting is such an icon for our culture, speaks to me of the state of our hearts and minds. The fear, disillusionment and hopelessness.
It seems to me that we, as the Church must find a way to connect with this hopelessness – to walk alongside those at their wits end and hold their hands until the other side. It is something which is happening up and down the country, all over the world – it is our calling. It is my calling, to serve those who live amidst the scream.
And I am reminded once again (probably because I’ve just finished writing a section of my dissertation on it) of that morning when Jesus walked alongside Cleopas and his companion on the Road to Emmaus. When they believed all hope was lost and Jesus joined them on their journey and shared his scars with them.
This narrative seems to invite us to do the same – to share in the scream and agony – to walk alongside people on that journey and offer up our broken and scarred selves to the Lord, trusting that He will use our pain to comfort others in pain.
That is my prayer.
That our screams may be heard and form those screams can come a song offering hope to others.