Four years ago, this column reported on a new edition of William Faulkner’s 1929 novel “The Sound and the Fury” – said to be one of 100 best English language novels of the 20th century. The new version was printed in 14 different colors to fulfill Faulkner’s wish stated in the appendix in 1945. He worried that his stream of conscious tale about the dissolution of a family, which he fittingly expressed with a chaotic structure, would confuse readers. So he asked that his novel be color-coding to help people navigate his disjointed narrative.
Was Faulkner right to want his scattered storyline color-coded to appear less scattered? Isn’t stream of conscious scattered? The question raises another one, this time about painting. Are we obliged to look at an art work according to an artist’s intent? The way art critics write about art, the answer is no. But consider Peter Schjeldahl’s review of a new Edvard Munch show at Neue Galerie in New York, which he or his editors titled “We All Scream.”
Obviously the review headline refers to Munch’s most famous work “The Scream.” And Peter, describing the presumed screamer, called it “the flayed, undulating figure of existential panic.” The critic is only one of many who see the terror-stricken colors as an indication of how ravaged Munch was by his sufferings. The figure certainly fits Peter’s description, but it doesn’t fit Munch’s account, which he recorded in his diary dated January 22, 1892:
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 color shrieked. This became The Scream.
It’s also notable that Munch titled the painting “Der Schreil der Natur,” which in German for “The Scream of Nature.” Yet even Norway’s National Museum of Art put out a children’s book in 2013 titled “Meet Edvard Munch” that likewise ignored his diary note about the painting. The Norwegian museum’s announcement was illustrated with a cartoon – a parody of “The Scream” – showing children running in fear from the figure in the painting.
This made no sense for children or anyone else. Granted, Munch’s vision of swirling brushwork, blood-red sky and pitch-y waterway seem to reverberate like a scream. And that was his point. The echo comes back at the screaming figure, not from it. And since the figure is holding its ears, you’d think more people would understand that it’s not the figure that is screaming.
Munch’s own words, that it was Mother Nature having the fit, not him – clearly contradicts the parody, not to mention all the misinterpretations of the work. All of which leaves us with the question we started with: Should artists’ intentions for their work matter? Anyone?