On my last visit to New York, I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see The Scream, a 36” x 28.9” drawing in pastel by Edvard Munch (1863–1944) on loan from a private collector. It is one of four versions the artist made of the famous subject: a genderless figure, standing on a bridge, holding its hairless head and screaming. The image of the silent scream has entered our popular visual culture, from coffee mugs to Macaulay Culkin’s trademark expression in the movie Home Alone. It hangs on a custom-built display wall in the center of a room amid other drawings, prints, and paintings by the Norwegian artist, where tourists crowd in front of it to pose with their version of the famous gesture.
The $120 Million Question
This pastel drawing fetched nearly $120 million, which at that time was the highest price ever paid for a work of art at public auction. The visitors came to gawk at that—to see what $120 million looks like. But The Scream raises a $120 million question: What is up with modern art? What are we to make of it, especially those of us in Reformation traditions? Modern art is strange, intimidating; it puts you on the spot. It doesn’t seem to behave how we believe “Art” should. It hangs in art museums throughout the world, but—to be frank—we’re not quite sure how it got there. Even the most creative and progressive culture makers among us are not quite sure what to do with it. As a museum curator and professor of modern art for nearly twenty years, I understand that frustration and confusion. So let’s spend some time thinking about The Scream.
Listening and Seeing
Some years ago, an artist friend surprised me by claiming that “a painting often distracts us by what it looks like.” Is it possible that a painting, of all things, can be more than meets the eye? Although he’s an atheist, my friend, who has devoted his life to painting, echoed an important biblical truth that Luther recovered: our eyes deceive us. We’re easily impressed with visual displays of power, wealth, and beauty, which have given the visual arts one of its primary roles in political and religious regimes since the dawn of recorded history. If our eyes deceive us, then what are we to do in front of a painting?
Let me suggest we follow Luther’s advice and listen. Luther claimed that the ears are the only organs of a Christian. It’s through the ears that we hear God’s promises: his promise to love us, to be with us, to never forsake us, to be for us despite what we see before our eyes and even despite the hiddenness of God—our inability to see him and his presence in the world amid suffering, pain, and injustice.
We, however, like our art as we like our Christianity: visually pleasing. We like it practical, useful, maybe a little therapeutic. We want a Jesus to instruct and encourage us; we want paintings to form virtue in us, elevate us, empower us, even entertain us. We want our Jesus, like our art, to help us succeed. We want tangible, visible results. You and I, if we’re honest with ourselves, gravitate toward a theology that resembles Joel Osteen and art that resembles a Thomas Kinkade painting much more closely than we care to admit. This isn’t because we’re ignorant about Reformation theology or a creational worldview. It’s because we’re human. We’re drawn to what looks like piety, improvement, progress, and talent. We’re drawn, like moths to the light, to what Luther called “theologies of glory.” And because it’s so powerful visually, a painting is one of those cultural artifacts most susceptible to its seductions.
Modern art contradicts most of our assumptions about art. It isn’t about heroes to emulate and challenge us, relaxing scenes with happy trees and quaint cottages to comfort us, outrageous images that entertain or scandalize us, or even expressions of an artist’s “worldview.” Because it pushes against our expectations and assumptions, modern art can offer a fresh way of reflecting on how God is at work in the world through law and gospel in surprising and often scandalous ways, even in the Museum of Modern Art.
Weak and Vulnerable
The artist Mark Rothko once said it’s a risky business to send a painting out into the world. And let’s face it: smearing smelly pigment across a scrap of canvas with a brush is a rather strange endeavor. In spite of the fact that they hang in the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art or cost collectors millions of dollars, paintings, even the so-called masterpieces, are weak and vulnerable things, always seemingly subject to destruction, theft, ridicule, misunderstanding, or perhaps worse, neglect.
To devote one’s life to painting pictures is an absurd practice—one that seems to fly in the face of what the world finds important, relevant, or useful. It contradicts both non-Christian and Christian theologies of culture, which are often obsessed with consumption, education, redemption, or transformation—theologies that work hard to make a painting fit into the justifying, and transactional power schemes that shape the world in which both Christians and non-Christians live and breathe and have their being. Paintings exist as contradictions to the conditional engine that drives the world.
Nature and the Modern Artist
Edvard Munch, like so many modern artists, understood an important theological point: nature is much more than meets the eye. In 1907, Munch wrote in his journal: “Nature is not only that which is visible to the eye. It is also the inner image of the mind. The images upon the reverse of the eye.”
Perhaps it might come as a surprise, but modern artists rediscovered the awesome wonder of nature. One of the reasons Munch despised academic painting—the pictures of nymphs, nudes, angels, and heroes that populated the salons and academies of his day—was because it presented an overly interpreted, explained, and allegorized nature. For Munch, nature was mysterious, brilliantly opaque, dangerously violent, and put insurmountable pressure on body and soul. He perceived in nature something terrible and unrelenting: It demands our life. The modern artist doesn’t “interpret” nature. He wrestles with it. Paul Cézanne, one of the most influential artists in the history of modernism, even admitted, “Nature appears to me so complicated.”
Art and Death
Munch once said that art comes from joy and pain. Then he added, “But mostly from pain.” This contradicts the theologian of glory in all of us who bristle at weakness and failure as the means by which God is present with us, choosing to scour culture for beauty and power (evidenced in virtue and morality) as the most appropriate vehicle for God, because we can enlist them in our life project. Munch, however, would have none of it.
Munch grows old in his paintings. His eyesight fails, he loses his virility; he experiences the death of loved ones, drifts sleeplessly around his home lonely and afraid, dwelling in the growing isolation and desperation of a modern life in which even the most routine daily tasks have the potential to ignite into violent confrontations with his deepest fears.
Indelibly scarred as a bedridden and sickly child by the death of his oldest sister whom he worshiped, Munch’s work is a confrontation with death and the pain of loss. One of the pictures on display at MoMA is a lithograph of his sister on her deathbed. Munch recounted that, in a burst of energy, she rose from her bed to sit in a chair where she died. Munch kept that chair with him for the rest of his life. Many shocked viewers, presuming that art’s role is to entertain or teach, found Munch’s confrontation with death, illness, and weakness sickening. And it is.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus heals a man born deaf and mute in a manner that recalls the mystery of creation: “And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’” (Mark 7:33–34).
In 1538, Luther preached a remarkable sermon on this text. For Luther, Christ comes to open our ears so we may be able to hear his word in the world. About this sermon, Oswald Bayer observes that “the whole world is filled with speaking,” but through sin, “the whole world is deaf!” Without Christ’s life-giving word, Ephphatha, we hear nothing but the sound of death, the sound of our own anxiety. Bayer continues,
The most surprising point in the entire sermon is that Luther, without digressing and in a theologically bold way that is most strange to our ears, takes the Word that Jesus Christ himself speaks in the miracle story and claims it as a Word that every creature speaks to us. For Luther, this means that Jesus Christ is so powerful when he speaks his Word that he discloses the entire world to us.
Our ears are our first organs. The world—which existed as brute, unyielding nature—is returned to us as a gift through hearing the promises of God’s word. The world, which pours forth speech (Ps. 19:2), is given to us in all its sensory wonder. What then do we hear in The Scream? Silence.
Munch as a Theologian of the Cross
The Scream is deaf and mute. Munch knew his paintings were silent, and it terrified him. For Munch, nature became an echo chamber where his own anxiety in the face of death could only yield a desperate, silent scream. Munch’s paintings force us to confront nature undiluted, “red in tooth and claw.” The Scream is the sound of our response to nature’s brute silence, undisclosed as a gift through God’s word.
Regarding the origins of this work, Munch remembered that as he stood on a pier, he “felt a huge endless scream course through nature.” This isn’t a nature that can be idealized, improved upon, or completed with a little dose of grace. It needs to be re-created. The Scream gives us what the hiddenness of God in paint sounds like, feels like, and looks like. The Scream doesn’t edify or teach us. It kills us.
Perhaps we reject Munch’s paintings and those of other modern artists not because they look strange or express a “worldview” or “values” at odds with our own, but because they confront us with our own mortality, our own weakness, failure, and impending death. Luther said that the theologian of the cross has the courage to call a thing what it actually is (Heidelberg Disputation, 1518). Munch shows us that life is defined by suffering, pain, and death. The controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger once commented that Paul Cézanne’s paintings said one thing: “Life is terrifying.” But Heidegger could also have said as much looking at The Scream.
We do not interpret The Scream. It interprets and interrogates us. It’s not only Munch who, like Melville’s Ahab in Moby-Dick, is “gnawed within and scorched without.” This is your condition and mine. The Scream forces us to recognize that this isn’t merely the product of a neurotic avant-garde artist, but a disclosure of the human condition we work feverishly to cover up, often by going to museums to look at art or to church to listen to sermons. This vulnerable little pastel, in its hermetically sealed silence, crowded by tourists in a museum in New York, calls a thing what it actually is.
And yet it’s tempting to see The Scream, like much of modern art, as a lament. As Bayer observes, a lament asks in the face of suffering and injustice, “Is God keeping his promises?” A lament, however, is only possible when the promises are known.
The Scream can thus be heard as a lament by those who believe the promise. Like all paintings, modern or otherwise, it yearns for a viewer who confesses, “All things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:15). The Scream is not the last word. But in its articulation of pain and suffering and the embodiment of a nature that must be re-created not merely improved upon, it must be the first word we hear.
Daniel A. Siedell is an art historian and educator. He is the author of God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art.
2. Alex Danchev, Cézanne: A Life (New York: Pantheon, 2012).
3. Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 107.
4. Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, 115.
5. Prideaux, Edvard Munch, 151.
6. Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 69.