Why Edvard Munch’s The Scream is an image for the modern age

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If ever there was an image to sum up our age, it is Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

Although the troubled Norwegian artist created his most famous painting over a century ago, the head in hands, open-mouthed, silent wail of despair is the perfect pictorial representation of these turbulent times. Talk about capturing the zeitgeist. I don’t know about you but it is the pose I adopt practically every time I read or listen to the news. A major exhibition of Munch’s work, including The Scream, opened yesterday at the British Museum in London and while curator Giulia Bartrum insists the show wasn’t deliberately programmed to coincide with the UK’s original departure date from the EU, the timing could not be better. Edvard Munch: Love and Angst is the largest exhibition of the artist’s work to go on display in this country for nearly fifty years and visitor numbers are expected to be high as there are plenty of reasons these days to be experiencing existential angst.

While it may feel like The Scream has never been more appropriate, it is in essence a powerful depiction of both the loneliness of the human condition and our need to be heard – a scream is the most primal form of communication and it cannot be ignored. It is also worth remembering, that since its creation in 1893, The Scream has popped up at various points in history when words are not enough, so in that sense it is timeless. It is a beautiful example of art as protest and as a means of connecting with others. It was used during the First World War, in the 1980s by peace campaigners at Greenham Common and, most recently, by Remain supporters demonstrating outside Parliament.

Those who are mourning the imminent rupture of the close relationship with our European neighbours may also be partly responsible for the recent boom in sales of translated fiction. According to research commissioned by the Man Booker International prize, UK readers are consuming European novels at a previously unseen rate. Last year sales of translated fiction went up by 5.5 per cent with more than 2.6 million books sold. Translated literary fiction was especially popular, up 20 percent in 2018 year-on-year. Sales of translated fiction in the UK are now at their highest since tracking began in 2001.

Reading fiction is undoubtedly one of the best ways we have to exercise our empathy and put ourselves in someone else’s shoes – and there is clearly an appetite for this, which is a reason to be hopeful.

Through exploring universal themes, literature reminds us that no matter who or where we are, we all have to face life’s big challenges. This is precisely why we will always need art and perhaps now more than ever.