Why Munch’s The Scream Doesn’t Really Scream

She points out its timelessness: “I went to Egypt, to the Valley of the Kings, where there is a fetus that would have become king. And I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s like The Scream!’”

From fetuses to emojis. The “Face Screaming in Fear” was added to platforms in 2010 – inspired by both the image and characters of Munch in Japanese anime – and has since been used in millions of digital posts, whether as a photo of a positive lateral flow test to add feeling, or to accentuate a picture of a toddler’s chocolate-covered face. It is a joke, to convey despair about everyday inconveniences.

Has this new digital life reduced Munch’s existential cry to levity? Alisa Freedman, a professor of cultural studies at the University of Oregon, doesn’t think so. “People respect and still know the culture, they know the work,” she says. But now, like other emojis, it has a new role to help people communicate. “The Scream has become social glue,” she says.

At least we use it less. According to Unicode, the official body responsible for emojis, the screaming face is the 55th most used icon, falling in the global rankings between 2019 and 2021. Freedman says others are taking his place: The skull is increasingly used for dying from shock or laughter.

Still, Emin fears The Scream has lost some of its power. “I went to the museum store and there were nail files with The Scream, so when you file your nails, it goes, ‘Wheeee!’ I thought, ‘That’s so bad. What would Munch have said?’”

I’m thinking about Emin’s encounter with a Scream-like mummified fetus, and she’s right. Once you start looking you will see The Scream everywhere. I see it in 5,000-year-old sculpted club heads in the British Museum, screaming silently for thousands of years, and again in the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in Somerset, where a selection of Henry Moore’s found objects are on display. They contain a piece of beach waste – a wooden disc with three holes, a kind of winding mechanism. Moore cast it in bronze in the mid-20th century. It looks like The Scream. He must have known.

And I see it in the mask worn by the villain in Scream, Wes Craven’s classic ’90s shlock horror film. I realize why Munch’s masterpiece resonates. It’s just an iteration. The Scream has always existed and will always exist.


The National Museum in Oslo opens tomorrow; nasjonalmuseet.no

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