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Picture A Scream: Through the mind of an artist

Updated on January 23, 2016

Caravaggio 1602: Sacrifice of Isaac


It's a scream, you say?

What is a scream? It is a subconscious reaction, right? You could say that a scream is the audible utterance of an emotion. We scream when we are overjoyed, elated, excited or surprised. We scream when we are angry, distraught and in despair. We scream out in pain, ecstasy and relief. We scream in victory as well as in defeat. A scream can be a cry, a yell, a wail, a bellow, a shrill, a protest, a concurrence. Many screams can become one unified scream. A scream can be desolate and alone. A scream is the innate outburst of the soul.

In the Sacrifice of Isaac, the baroque painter Caravaggio captures the moment a terrified Isaac is saved by an angel of God. The scene is quite literal. The angel commands Abraham's attention as Isaac cries out for his life.

Edvard Munch1893: The Scream


How do you see it?

People envision screams in many dynamics. The vibration of a sound can elicit a variety of scenes in ones mind. How do you visualize a scream? Is it a symbolic force in your head? Is it the hue of an emotion? Imagine the somber wail of a dark emptiness. Is it calling out to you? Does it draw you in? Is it warning you? Is it questioning you? Is it commanding and powerful or frail and broken?

Expressionist Edvard Munch's created his iconic painting The Scream in 1893. He said, "for as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.”

Though both Caravaggio's work and Munch's work portray a figure in the act of a scream, they conveyed them in strikingly different manners. Caravaggio takes an objective point of view in his depiction of figures. They are realistic images. He uses religious iconography and a dark, rich color palette to convey the severity of the scene. Munch's approach is more subjective. His wavy, indistinct image of a man echoes the bellowing tone emanating from his body. The rhythmic swirl of melancholy hues surround the figure like a confined spirit.

Gustave Courbet 1845: The Desperate Man


Francis Bacon 1949: Head VI


Picture power, that's heavy

One could argue that the projection of a scream's power is manifested in the objective or subjective intensity brought forth by the artist. Objectively looking at The desperate man by Gustave Courbet, we can see the anxiety in the man's face. There is no guesswork. His expression spells it out for us. From a subjective point of view, you can feel the uneasiness and tension he creates. Intense, exposing, seemingly interrogating light clashing with the hard, black crevices of shadow is bold and dramatic. You feel the angst. You can't reach out and grab it but you still feel it. It is beyond what is tangible.

Artists of the surrealist movement created thought provoking screams in works that comingled objective and subjective imagery. Francis Bacon said, “When I look at you across a table, I don’t only see you but I see a whole emanation which has to do with personality and everything else. To put that over in a painting as I would like to be able in a portrait means that it would appear violent in paint" In his work Head VI, Bacon projects an isolated scream that seams to transcend it's cage, reaching out to the emptiness surrounding it.

The weight of a scream is the measure of the viewers individual experience. The artists portrayal of a scream is only a scream if the viewer perceives it to be. With that being said, the artists concept was born with a personal value or weight. When we process the work in our minds the work may be more or less profound based on our own life experiences. Max Ernst was considered a degenerate artist by the Nazis and was twice captured. He was able to escape to America with the help of influential friends. War influenced much of his work. In Europe after the rain II, Ernst portrays a barren wasteland with remnants of buildings and tattered cloth. On the right side of the painting, we see seemingly skeletal shapes forming the mountain. Eerie gaps in the piled carnage echo the screams of 10,000 souls as the bird-headed figure surveys the ruin. Ernst believed "...the best to do is to have one eye closed and to look inside, and this is the inner eye. With the other eye you have it fixed on reality, what is going on around in the world. If you can make kind of a synthesis of these two important worlds you come to result which can be considered the synthesis of objective and subjective life.”

Max Ernst 1942: Europe after the rain II


Surprise! It's a scream!

We have already touched on a few undeniable images of a scream and images that hint at a scream. How do you relate a scream to an image where no one is screaming? What if there are no people at all? Consider these next few artists, their works and how they evoke a scream.

Jean-Honore Fragonard 1767: The Swing


Mark Rothko 1960 :No 14


Rene Magritte 1934: Collective Invention


Jean-Honore Fragonard created scandalous screams with his work The Swing. A frilly example of the rococo style, he presents us with a woman between two men. One man pushes her on the swing, supporting her from the shadows. The other man waits in the bushes for her to pass over him revealing her intimate secrets. The idea of a love triangle has long been and still is a taboo notion in many societies. The innuendo is exciting and can be rather shocking. Think about how a woman might scream differently than a man in reaction to the painting.

Some artists strive to use the most basic images to portray a scream. What about an image that has no image? Mark Rothko used large fields of color to convey his message. He said of his work, "I'm not an abstractionist. I'm not interested in the relationship of color or form or anything else. I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on."

In Collective Invention, Magritte shocks us with his image of a mermaid formed in reverse. It has the head of a fish and the legs of woman. The idea is nightmarish and grotesque. Rene Magritte said, "In my pictures I have placed objects in situations where we never encounter them. Because I wanted the most familiar objects to utter a kind of scream, these had to be arranged in a fresh order and aquire a meaning that was deeply upsetting"

Max Ernst & The Surrealist Revolution part 1

Monsieur Rene Magritte

The Life of Francis Bacon


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