The New York Times (12/09/2003)
Against a lurid sky, vividly streaked with waves of red and yellow, a grotesque figure cowers, his mouth and eyes wide open, his hands clasped to his ears. This familiar painting,” The Scream,” is Edvard Munch's most famous work. Yet for more than a century, the event that inspired it has eluded identification.
Munch makes clear in a journal entry that “The Scream“ grew from an experience he had while walking near Christiania (now Oslo) at sunset.
“All at once the sky became blood-red . . . clouds like blood and tongues of fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city . . . and I stood alone, trembling with anxiety . . . I felt a great unending scream piercing through nature,” it says.
Since 1893, when “The Scream“ was rendered, various art historians have speculated about the nature of that event, and when it occurred. Now Dr. Donald Olson, an astronomer at Texas State University, and colleagues say these experts have overlooked an earth-shaking fact.
In the February 2004 issue of Sky & Telescope, the Texas group asserts that “The Scream” was the direct consequence of a cataclysm half a world away from Norway: the volcanic explosion on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa.
Dr. Olson says art historians have been led astray by the fact that Munch had dated only one of his several journal descriptions of the sky that had so startled him. With that account dated January 1892, the historians assumed the event had occurred some months before. Indeed, most books about Munch assign the 1891 date to Munch's defining experience.
Another common assumption was that what Munch saw that day was not much out of the ordinary. After all, late autumn sunsets in northern Europe are often characterized by red and yellow waves, and they are a favorite subject of artists. The author of a 1973 study of Munch and his works, Thomas M. Messer, suggested that the vivid sky in “The Scream“ might simply be “visualizations of sound waves“ or “externalizations of force and energy.”
But Dr. Olson's group was convinced that something extraordinary had indeed occurred to make so great an impression on Munch. Searching the artist's journals, the group members discovered that many of his paintings in the early 1890's were based on experiences that occurred years earlier. Could “The Scream“ have been one of them?
Suddenly, Olson had the answer.
“I immediately thought of Krakatoa,” he recalls. The huge explosion, which occurred in August 1883 and the tsunamis it generated killed some 36,000 people.
It lofted huge amounts of dust and gases high into the atmosphere, where they remained airborne and in the next several months spread over vast parts of the globe.
Dr. Olson's group scoured the literature and found a report on Krakatoa's effects issued by the Royal Society of London. One section was “Descriptions of the Unusual Twilight Glows in Various Parts of the World, in 1883-4.”
Those “twilight glows” hardly went unnoticed in New York. On Nov. 28, 1883, The New York Times reported: “Soon after 5 o'clock the western horizon suddenly flamed into a brilliant scarlet, which crimsoned sky and clouds.”
“Many thought that a great fire was in progress,” it continued.
About the same time, similar phenomena began appearing in Norwegian twilight skies. Olson believes that Munch, too, must have been startled, even frightened, the first time he witnessed the fiery spectacle, probably in late 1883, nearly a decade before he produced “The Scream.” No Munch journal entries have been found for that time.
To buttress their case, the Texas group went to Norway in May and, using Munch's sketches, other paintings and old maps, pinpointed the spot where the artist was standing when he made his original sketch.
Jeffery Howe, an art historian and Boston College professor, finds Dr. Olson's revelation “intriguing,” but not necessarily the only explanation for the famous painting.” It opened up another question for me,” he says. “If that was the shaping event, what was the trigger that caused him to return to it in 1893?”
Whatever the answer, Dr. Olson is barely able to contain his enthusiasm.” What's most rewarding,” he says, “is that we are the first to have made the connection between one of the world's most famous paintings and one of the world's greatest disasters.”