Archive for the ‘art’ Category

Whole in a Hole – Picture of the Month: Pelvis 1 by Georgia O’Keeffe (1944)


Pelvis 1 – Georgia O’Keeffe (1944)

Reviewing Georgia O’Keeffe’s life’s work at the extensive exhibition currently showing at Tate Modern, it is clearly a journey of abstracting Nature to capture and communicate its essence.

The journey as portrayed in this retrospective has the following landmarks along the way: early experiments with pure abstraction, exploring synaesthesia and detached from figurative representation; taking the figurative edge off of cityscapes of New York; immersion in Nature in New York State; flower paintings; discovering New Mexico; bone paintings and New Mexican landscapes; last works including aerial landscapes. I pick out Pelvis 1 as the culmination of the journey.

It is the brilliant realisation that you can create a ready-made abstract of Nature through the simple device of a dried bone from the arid landscape of New Mexico. O’Keeffe used the hole in a pelvis bone to frame the brilliant blue of the Southern sky. In so doing we have both the figurative representation of a piece of sun-bleached bone and patches of sun-drenched sky; and a two-colour abstract centred on a big blue ball. There’s just enough shadow on the bone and shading in the sky to retain the literal representation of the scene and yet the execution is simple enough to read as a Modernist work of Abstract Expressionism.

The tightly cropped presentation owes something to the art of photography – O’Keeffe was married for over two decades to the photographer and modern art promoter Alfred Stieglitz.

The degree of abstraction is amplified when we consider the date: 1944. There was some heavy shit going on for the USA in ’44 and even more so for humanity and the world and yet we have here purity and tranquility. Having said that, over half of the picture area is made up of Dead Stuff (bone). Pelvis can be read as a momento mori, a meditation on the finite life of Man and Nature’s creatures in contrast to the infinity of the heavens.

O’Keeffe was consciously in search of what she termed “The Great American Thing”, a form of art as native and characteristic as, say, Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was in terms of the novel. That other Great American and lover of Nature, Henry David Thoreau, swore by Simplicity:

Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.


Mask with Golden Apple – Georgia O’Keeffe (1923)

And our own apple-lover Isaac Newton captured it well:

Nature is pleased with simplicity.

So is Art.

Another great American Modernist, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, (much influenced by Thoreau) summed it up as well as anyone:

Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.

By those measures Pelvis 1 is a masterpiece. I love it for having boiled down the essence of the Human Condition (mortality in the face of eternity) like the desert strips the rotting body down to pure white bone. O’Keeffe collected bones from 1929, initially due to Nature holding back its bounty: “That first summer I spent in New Mexico I was a little surprised that there were so few flowers. There was no rain so the flowers didn’t come. Bones were easy to find so I began collecting bones.” She began painting them from around 1931, initially mainly skulls. She painted them as still lifes; superimposed on landscapes in the Surrealist manner; integrated into the landscape sitting in the foreground. That this painting features the pelvis rather than the skull I also love because this is not about brains and thinking, this is about cohones and feeling, about instinct and the deepest-down understanding.





Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz

* * * *

A previous Latino Picture of the Month:  Autorretrato con Chango y Loro (Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot) – Frida Kahlo (1942)

Frida Smith

There seems to be a connection


Patti Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 01.34.56

Frida Kahlo meets Patti Smith


Patti meets Frida (Wave)

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 01.47.57

Frida as Odalisque

Rhodes Must Be Remixed


All Rhodes lead to remix

Here’s my solution to the Cecil Rhodes statue controversy in Oxford. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign wants to have the statue of the in many ways rather nasty imperialist taken down from Oriel College, Oxford, his alma mater and beneficiary of his largesse. Rather than tearing down the statue like some dodgy authoritarian regime and airbrushing out history like a bunch of old Commies, let’s add another layer to it like the Brixton-based artist Hew Locke (son of a Guyanese sculptor and a British painter) did on the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol. Or put adjacent to it a bigger statue of, say, Nelson Mandela. Let’s add and be constructive…


Hew Locke – Edward Colston from Restoration (2006)

Locke draped Colston in trading beads, coins and other accoutrements of empire. (Or to be precise, he draped a photo of the statue in this 3D mixed media – but why not do it directly on the statue itself for good (in both senses)? )

You can see some of Locke’s works in the last room of the ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition currently [until 10th April] on show at Tate Britain (ironically – the Tate & Lyle sugar fortune having been arguably built on slavery).


Edward Colston naked/unremixed in Bristol city centre

Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 13.01.55

Nelson Mandela slightly remixed with bird-shit, Parliament Square, London

Hew Locke talking about Restoration [2 minute listen]

Picture of the Month: He Came He Soared He Conquered – Rosewall by Peter Lanyon

(c) Sheila Lanyon/DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Rosewall – Peter Lanyon (1960)

As we approach the new year it feels like a good moment to reflect on changing perspectives. ‘Rosewall’ is the first of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings. Born in St Ives at the end of the Great War and central to the St Ives Group during the 50s, he took up gliding in 1959, inspired in part by observing the flight of seabirds over his native Cornish landscape, the subject at the heart of his painting. This painting was completed in January 1960, four months after Lanyon started his glider training. Before taking up the glider, he was keen on dramatic high perspectives like cliff edges and hilltops. Rosewall is a hill in Cornwall.

So ‘Rosewall’ was his first work to benefit directly by this new aerial perspective. We are used to the sky sitting blue at the top of the landscape but here it is what frames the whole experience. And the experience is a vortex of air, light and wind. Swirls of white air between us and the green grass and brown earth.

I’m not big on totally abstract painting – I prefer the kind with vestiges of the figurative – grass, earth, sky, clouds, the components of landscape, but combined with the feelings it provokes – vertiginous spectacle, thrill and fear, soaring freedom. Abstract expressionism of a rooted kind. While its head is in the clouds its feet are on the ground. At once airy and earthy.

Lanyon explained his motivation for gliding: “…I do gliding myself to get actually into the air itself; and get a further sense of depth and space into yourself, as it were into your own body, and then carry it through into a painting.” He linked his practice at this time to Turner and saw himself as part of a core English tradition of landscape painting. I love the notion of making possible for yourself a physical expereince so you can subsequently capture it in paint.

For the first time ever a comprehensive collection of Lanyon’s gliding paintings is now on show – in an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House, London (running until 17th January 2016). Filling just two rooms, it’s a small but perfectly formed show, well worth catching to experience the ambitious scale of the artworks. This 6′ x 5′ painting normally resides in Belfast in the Ulster Museum.

Lanyon was taught by Victor Pasmore at the Euston Road School and Ben Nicholson in Cornwall. Nicholson was a contemporary at the Slade of Paul Nash whose aerial paintings like Battle of Britain (1941) would seem to be not-so-distant cousins of the Gliding Paintings. I love the landscapes of Nash for their combination of modernity and deep-rooted tradition, as much in the spirit of European Surrealism as in the heritage of English Romanticism. Lanyon is a worthy successor and deserves to be better known.

peter lanyon glider

Peter Lanyon in his glider (1964)


Previous Pictures of the Month.

Best of 2014

20,000 Days on Earth

20,000 Days on Earth


20,000 Days on Earth

The Theory of Everything

Male Lead:
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

David Oyelowo – Selma

Nicholas Cage – Joe
Tom Hardy – Locke
Benedict Cumberbtach – The Imitation Game
Ralph Fiennes – Grand Hotel Budapest

Female Lead:
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything

Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl

Male Support:
Tim Roth – Selma
Steve Carell – Foxcatcher
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Tom Wilkinson – Selma

Female Support:
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Sienna Miller – American Sniper

Richard Linklater – Boyhood

Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard – 20,000 Days on Earth

Christopher Nolan – Interstellar
Pawel Pawlikoski – Ida
Paul King – Paddington
Yann Demange- ’71

Paul Webb – Selma
Paul King – Paddington
Wes Anderson – Grand Hotel Budapest
Anthony McCarten – The Theory of Everything

Production Design:
Grand Hotel Budapest

Visual FX:
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Michael Franti & dancer

Michael Franti & dancer

(John Newman – Love Me Again)

Morning Phase – Beck
Tribute – John Newman

With The Artists – Rhythm & Sound
Liquid Spirit – Gregory Porter
(WomanChild -Cecile McLorin Salvant)

Van Morrison on launch night of Nell’s Jazz & Blues Club

Michael Franti & Spearhead – Islington Assembly Hall (with D)

John Newman – Empire Shepherd’s Bush
ABC – Lexicon of Love – Theatre Royal Drury Lane
Peter Gabriel – So – Wembley Arena

A Taste of Honey – Shelagh Delaney – National Theatre, Lyttleton

Fiesta – adapted & directed by Alex Helfrecht – Trafalgar Studios
Oh What a Lovely War – Joan Littlewood & the Theatre Workshop – Theatre Royal Stratford East (Joan Littlewood centenary – with D)
Fings Ain’t Wot They Used to Be – Frank Norman – Theatre Royal Stratford East

Art Exhibition:
Egon Schiele drawings: The Radical Nude – Courtauld

John Craxton – Fitzwilliam, Cambridge
Richard Hamilton – Tate Modern
Abram Games: designing the 20th Century – Jewish Museum, Camden Town
MALBA – Buenos Aires
Museum der bildenden Kunste – Leipzig (with N)

Book: (that I read this year)
Rabbit at Rest – John Updike

Germany crushing Brazil at the World Cup (7-1 semi-final)

Jonny May’s try for England against the All Blacks at Twickenham

Philae probe from European spacecraft Rosetta landing on a comet

Dearly departed:

Joe Cocker
Jack Bruce
Tommy Ramone

Egon Schiele - The Radical Nude

Egon Schiele – The Radical Nude

Best of 2013

Best of 2012

Best of 2011

Best of 2010

Best of 2009

Pictures of the Month

Autorretrato con Chango y Loro (Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot) – Frida Kahlo

frida kahlo painting artist painter

Skrik (Scream) – Edvard Munck

munch skrik

Joie de Vivre – Picasso

Joie de Vivre - Picasso (1946)

Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices – David Hockney

Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices (1965)

Portrait Surrounded by Artistic Devices (1965)

Merry-Go-Round – Mark Gertler

Merry-Go-Round by Mark Gertler

Merry-Go-Round by Mark Gertler (1916)

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère – Edouard Manet

Un bar aux Folies Bergère

Un bar aux Folies Bergère – Edouard Manet

Picture of the Month: Autorretrato con Chango y Loro (Self-portrait with Monkey and Parrot) – Frida Kahlo (1942)

Self-portrait with monkey and parrot frida kahlo 1942

I’ve never written a Picture of the Month in situ before but it’s a rainy Spring afternoon in Buenos Aires and I feel so inspired by this painting in the Malba gallery that I feel compelled to get a bit of energy out of the system. I’m dedicating this one to Una who would love this painting.

Worth making the trip to Buenos Aires for this alone

Worth making the trip to Buenos Aires for this alone

What’s unusual is that in many ways it’s a very simple painting, not much to work with – the artist, a monkey, a parrot and a background of wheat. Usually I pick images with more complexity to focus on in Picture of the Month.

I’m about 20 inches away from it now, phone in hand to jot this on.

It draws people to it

It draws people to it

The eyes (woman, monkey, bird) make an equilateral triangle which is the heart of the composition. Frida’s look slightly left like she doesn’t give a monkey’s about the viewer. Her lips are tight. Her cheeks red. There’s a bit of anger or disdain or probably defiance there.

The parrot looks straight out with both of its side-mounted eyes looking directly at the viewer – the only one of the three doing so. I saw a green parrot like this yesterday up in the trees at the bird sanctuary across town by the port, the Costanera Sur ecological reserve at Puerto Madero. Incongruously some distant relatives, also bright green, hang out occasionally in the allotments beside my house.

The monkey is looking out of the frame to the artist’s left – only one black eye visible like a Jack of spades.

Frida’s hairband is green and yellow like the parrot. Her hair is black like the monkey. She is integrated with them. Are they two aspects of her? Talking and thinking or feeling? Her parents? Her children? Two people she knows? Two aspects of Mexico? No clues really – maybe they are just two animals or familiars.

The parrot sits on her shoulder. Not much sense of its weight. The yellow and maroon dress she is wearing is flat and unruffled, making the parrot not quite of this world.

The monkey is embracing her, an arm behind her back and one on her shoulder. They look close whoever he/she is. It’s got a little quiff. Its face is at once baby-like and old, more the latter.

His (why do I keep thinking it’s a male?) fur links to her amazing gull-shaped monobrow through the shared colour and her unflinchingly portrayed moustache. She has black eye-liner echoing those eyebrows. The lip hair reflects them. So some strong X-shaped geometry is the focus of her face.

The background of wheat reminds me of Van Gogh. The yellow is related to his sunflowers. The tendrils at the top suggest growth and something of the jungle. The shapes also remind me of Rousseau’s vegetation.

…on reflection, I don’t think it’s wheat. I think it’s some kind of exotic jungle plant. So we’re in a Latin-American jungle world albeit of a light and limited kind, no sense of enclosure by trees.

frida kahlo painting artist painter

After 20 minutes standing here what do I take away about this beautiful picture? It’s more for Frida than for us – or at least she’s giving us only so much. The rest is hers.

A touch of defiance?

A touch of defiance?

Never looking directly at you

Never looking directly at you

What's with the monkeys?

What’s with the monkeys?

...And the feathered friends?

…And the feathered friends?


frida kahlo painting monkeys


Here’s the last Picture of the Month – as you can see the series title has a touch of irony about it.

Dream #311



I’m at my book group. A few more people there than usual. There’s stuff going on around gay issues with some gay people (I think one may be Boyd). We’ve got an hour slot and I’m starting to get concerned we’re wasting too much time. Una is with me. When 45 minutes have elapsed I get up and have a row with Jon, storming out in a huff.


I’m at a party. Jon is leaning against a wall and I approach him from behind along the hallway. I say I must tell you about this dream I had that you were in and I start to tell him…


I’ve made a music documentary about Radio 5. A senior producer tells me I can get it on air but it has to be today or never. The producer I’m working with has the extra material and music needed to finish off the documentary to make it suitable for airing today. Somehow this material and this colleague are impossible to pin down and I pursue them in vain. This brings me to a situation where I am in a bed. Near a river. I’ve taken my shoes off on the river side. They become lost or washed away. The water comes up half under the bed. A huge pike swims under me.



I’m at my book group. [I finished a novel last night and was wondering whether to read a play next or my book group book which I’m not in the mood for.] A few more people there than usual. There’s stuff going on around gay issues with some gay people (I think one may be Boyd). [I was in bed early with the radio on and the legalisation of gay marriage was the lead story in the news.] We’ve got an hour slot and I’m starting to get concerned we’re wasting too much time. Una is with me. When 45 minutes have elapsed I get up and have a row with Jon, storming out in a huff.


I’m at a party. Jon is leaning against a wall and I approach him from behind along the hallway. I say I must tell you about this dream I had that you were in and I start to tell him… [dream within a dream – pretty far out. See Dali below]


I’ve made a music documentary about Radio 5. [Radio 5 was on as I half-slept.] A senior producer tells me I can get it on air but it has to be today or never. [Today is the 20th anniversary of Radio 5.] The producer I’m working with has the extra material and music needed to finish off the documentary to make it suitable for airing today. Somehow this material and this colleague are impossible to pin down and I pursue them in vain. This brings me to a situation where I am in a bed. Near a river. I’ve taken my shoes off on the river side. They become lost or washed away. The water comes up half under the bed. A huge pike swims under me. [This is the interesting bit for me that prompted me to write this post – I came across the word Pike three times yesterday – (1) Yesterday I was finishing off ‘New Boy’ by William Sutcliffe, a novel set in my old school, which would actually explain why Jon was in my dream. At one point the two friends at the centre of the book walk out of school to a place called Pike’s Water. I would have gone there with Jon at lunch breaks very occasionally. (2) Yesterday evening I was writing my book, the chapter about Joan Littlewood. In it I was mainly writing about Brendan Behan. Behan’s play The Quare Fellow [quare – queer – perhaps another link to gay issues though I think that mainly came from the radio news item] was originally put on in Pike’s Theatre, Dublin. (3) Actaully I think this one was after the event and therefore not source but Serendipity. The blog post just before this which I wrote Around Midnight last night was Liked shortly after midnight by Timothy Pike, Freelance (Editor? – the text of his name is harshly curtailed by WordPress ironica…) – I didn’t see the Like alert email til this morning, though within an hour or two of the dream. So none of my three pikes were fish as such, though (1) contained fish perhaps.] Fish, staple diet of the Surrealist.

Salvador Dalí - 'Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening'

Salvador Dalí – ‘Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening’

P.S. I once saw this painting, about the moments before waking and the way one dream fragment arises from another, in the same way this memory is arising from my recounting of these dreams, in an exhibition in London – at the Tate or Royal Academy, I can’t quite picture it. A teacher was standing in front of the painting talking about it to his pupils. With a Bic biro in his hand. I saw him point something out with the biro and touch the canvas. No way! I went to check after the group moved on. No shit, that scrufosa just put a blue mark on a Masterpiece! How delicate is even great art…

Manchester, so much to answer for (Day 30)

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air

The day was centred on non-writing activity – namely a speaking event at the Radio Festival 2013 in Manchester where I participated in a discussion on Democracy, Radio and the Media with Bea Campbell (writer and feminist) and Rod Liddle (journalist, columnist in The Spectator, former editor of Radio 4’s Today programme). The session in The Lowry theatre in Salford was chaired by radio presenter Peter Curran and produced by Radio 4 Today Editor Peter Hanington. I traveled up on the train to Manchester with Rod. The last time he came on my radar was when I read a piece of his in The Spectator about Channel 4’s decision to broadcast the Muslim call to prayer during Ramadan. His view of Channel 4 commissioning editors was expressed thus: “The suspicion persists that over at Channel 4, in the commissioning departments, it is forever Wank Week. A perpetual circle jerk of low-achieving white middle-class males tugging away like there’s no tomorrow. The latest spurt of fatuity comes from its Head of Factual Programming, a very pleased-with-himself little semi-bearded monkey…etc. etc.” Other than his being apparently down on monkeys (which I love and are only 0.4% different in their DNA, or so I heard on Radio 4 last Sunday [from evolutionary anthropologist Professor Volker Sommer on The Museum of Curiosity – presenter John lloyd was someone I was thinking about for the Comedy chapter], and apparently men and women can be 4% different), other than the monkey thing  and his being too down on Crouch End (he uses the word “bien-pensant” a lot, deliberately pronounced in an English accent), he proved a very affable chap with a voice fit for the stage. He knew a lot about the landscape we were trundling through from the Welsh borders to Stockport viaduct (which later showed up in an exhibition I went to, see below). He was helpful sharing his experience of book writing and publishing.

Once in Salford, at Media City in the shadow of Old Trafford, both very ugly, we hung out in a strange long curved back-room getting our heads together and broadly discussing the issues at hand. Bea was very friendly and easy to connect with. She now does a lot of her writing in South-West France which she balances with Camden Town. She has a great passion about her which explains why my Other Half has been so inspired by her over the years. Peter Curran did a grand job holding the whole thing together so the session proved smooth and not narrow, three clear perspectives on the topic, mine focused very much on the multiplatform potential of radio, the medium I love most (I listen to over 20 hours a week).

Once over I high-tailed it into town to the Manchester Art Gallery to see the Jeremy Deller exhibition I missed previously at The Hayward in London. I was fortunately alerted to it by the art collector at The Groucho on Day 29. It’s a tremendous exhibition – All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is Exhibition as Art Work, a reflection on the Industrial Revolution created from existing artworks and artefacts arranged to give maximum illumination to experiences and phenomena which remain central to our lives. It only opened on Friday so time was on my side. Time was one of the most revelatory themes for me – the regulation of time through industrialisation – working hours, clocking on, time off. The most disturbing object on display was a contemporary device from Motorola which is affixed to the wrist (where, having listened recently to an extract from Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, the nail went in to fix Jesus to the cross) to monitor the efficiency of warehouse picking workers at Amazon and similar workplaces. That kind of thinking, zero hours contracts, and you can see the Industrial Revolution is not played out. At Peter & Shelagh’s wedding on Saturday in the church where Milton, inspiration for the ridiculously long sentences in this post and the insane sub-clauses, we, heavenly muse, sang Jerusalem so this whole thing has been in the air all week.

Jeremy Deller is the subject of my Art chapter so it was brilliant being able to tune into him through such an inspiring show. I saw him talk about it once at a small conference while he was creating it, focusing on the above image of a miner and his returning prodigal son. What a perfect capturing of the tension of industry – connection and alienation, love and fear,  old and new, monochrome and colour, manual work and non-manual.

I enjoyed the people-watching as I walked from the gallery to the station – everything you’d expect from the city of Lowry and The Smiths.  And of Tony Wilson, the subject of my Music chapter.

The  journey home allowed for a bit of writing, carrying on with Paul Arden to the rhythm of the train and the Talking Heads.

Picture of the Month: Is he screaming?

Going, going...

Going, going…

I’m in the office, it’s mid-afternoon and a gap’s appeared. I’ll nab it to dash across the park to Sotheby’s to take a look at The Scream. It’s a version in pastels, not oil, on board, not canvas, in private hands for years, Fred Olsen the shipping magnate, unseeable til now. I ring up to see what time they close. Half an hour ago and today was the last day of the viewing in London – it’s off to New York now. I let out a little Skrik. Bugger, bugger, bugger, I’ve been meaning to take a look for weeks. As Nietzsche would have said, you’ve got to be philosophical about it. I’m trying – but struggling. Soooo disappointed. I’ve seen most of the other versions, three in paint, my first time was in Oslo around 1987.

The Scream sold


And then I got a second chance I never expected. I pictured this pastels version of Munch’s The Scream disappearing back into some mansion. But the new owner is evidently an enlightened person, s/he put it on public display at MoMA in New York (with which I heard s/he has a close connection). I was in NYC a few weeks ago talking at the Impact Media conference. The day after I went on a pathetically shallow quest in search of a particular watch made in New York. One of the few places you’re supposed to be able to get one is in the MoMA design shop – drew a blank there (out-of-date websites are so annoying, Nooka) – but the upside was I spotted the poster for The Scream exhibition.

The 1895 pastel on board version at MoMA

The 1895 pastel on board version at MoMA

Made a bee-line for it. It sat in the centre of a semi-darkened room. Surrounded by various works which shed some light on it, relatively minor, thoughtfully displayed. And here’s the thing…


He may well not actually be screaming. It’s called The Scream/Skrik. It’s got a man in the middle of it. Somehow an assumption had fixed itself in my mind that the man’s screaming. But first and foremost he’s covering his ears to block out a scream. A scream Munch heard in Nature that evening he went out walking along the edge of Oslo fjord and the sunset turned the sky blood red. His two friends were a bit ahead and he found himself alone in the face of Nature’s infinity.

I’ve experienced that myself but in a more benign way. I used to have an album by ABC called ‘Beauty Stab’ (used to because it was on cassette, a format well capable of prompting shrieks). It was a phrase that really resonnated for me. Those moments when you’re somewhere in Nature and it’s so beautiful it hurts. Occasionally I’ve had it though where it tips into an anxiety in the face of Nature’s depths – I had that once alone in a natural pool in Jamaica. For Munch it’s angst all the way on an overwhelming scale.

Skrik was one of six paintings making up what the artist dubbed the ‘Frieze of Life’. He was responding to (German dramatist) Lessing’s assertion in Laocoon that literature could tell a story over time where painting had to rely on a single moment. Munch wanted to create what the German’s called a ‘gesamptwerk’, a total work of art. The six paintings were displayed together and offered a coherent overview of life as a human being. Wanting to keep them together explains Munch’s willingness to reproduce his own paintings, avoiding breaking up the set.

One of the four versions made by Munch between 1893 and 1910

One of the four versions made by Munch between 1893 and 1910

On a tangent my limited Norwegian vocabulary is dominated by words like Skrik, Kvinne and the like, picked up from Munch’s titles. I was actually one of only two people in my year at Cambridge doing Norwegian (for me it was a third, subsidiary language which I was studying for all the wrong reasons and without seriousness, unlike the other student who quickly left me behind like Munch’s friends on that fateful walk).

munch skrik

So I battled my way through the crowd to get a close look at this 4th version of the iconic image, displayed like an icon in a fancy frame (Munch wasn’t keen on frames, or even on canvas, often painting on board or cheap materials) in a reverent penumbra, and drank it in, left above all with the impression of the mad swirls. Pencilled on to one oil version in the Oslo Museum is the sentence (in Norsk of course) “only a madman could have painted this”. To what extent this reflected his fear of madness in his family or was a bit of a pose cashing in on the Nordic rep for depressive nuttiness is difficult to say for sure.

Any way, I made my way literally round the corner to bump into another display of mad swirls. Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. (MoMA is like that, a too-rich mix of masterpiece after masterpiece, difficult to consume much of in a sitting.) What an illuminating face-off that was – Skrik vs Starry Night. Munch drew inspiration for his expressiveness from Vincent’s quickly growing impact in the wake of his death in 1890. But Vincent’s nightswirls are expressions not of madness and the chaotic expanse of Nature but of the raw energy of its infinity. Van Gogh’s image is the culmination of the 19th century in wonder and dynamism. Munch’s is the quintessence of the 20th century in its anxious horror.


The face at its focus is simplified, universalised in the way Klee stripped back his imagery to a powerful child-like lingua franca. In this way it is the head of Everyman, almost back to the skull beneath the skin, and that is the secret of its power – it is a kind of blank canvas, like Room 101, where we each impose our own meanings onto it. A scream at the horror of the holocaust. Despair (its original title) at the godless world post-Nietzsche. A cry for sanity as we pollute the waters, the countryside, the sky – tearing the earth to bloody pieces. A shriek at the advent of the A-bomb. A man screaming …who isn’t.

abc beauty stab

One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord – the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked. This became The Scream.

Munch’s diary – 22nd January 1892

The last Picture of the Month

%d bloggers like this: