We were headed for a fjord outside Oslo. It was still early autumn: Icy Arctic winds hadn’t yet brought the winter chill to the town. The warmth of the summer was fading as sunlight rested on the water surrounding the city. You could see a long trail of people walking up the gently sloped entrance to the national opera house; it was evening.
Icy calm: The evening sky over Oslo’s seafront hides the melancholy and anxiety of Munch’s The Scream. AFP
By the time we reached the restaurant, which sat on the water at the edge of the city, large clouds had taken over the sky, hanging over us like a billowing shroud. The clouds were soft and looked like layers upon layers of fluffy, cuddly toys, dark blue and grey. The water, which sparkled in the afternoon, now looked solemn and sombre.
On the horizon, with the sea trembling gently, the clouds pressed in, as though tucking us in bed, as if we were going to get sealed in the comforting embrace of the night, while sunlight escaped through that tiny crevice, still shining brilliantly, making the water look like liquid silver. The sunset wasn’t golden, pink or red; the light was bright and white. It had clarity and starkness that I had not seen before. It seemed to penetrate the clouds, pushing them aside, and the clouds moved back, meekly and obediently, making way for the sun, stretching the twilight hour.
Oslo’s autumnal skies are special. The days are clear and crisp blue. The sky turns a warm pink, before becoming red, like the leaves of the trees that populate the hills surrounding the city. But at some point, the light stops following any precise sequence, and becomes the palette of a painter with an overactive imagination. It is a scream.
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The lurid sky that Edvard Munch painted in 1893, which has come to symbolize the age of anxiety, referred to a spectacular twilight in autumn. The light was sharp, but there was a millennial, messianic element to that light, which brings to mind Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh,
It gives a lovely light.
There is that fleeting nature of mesmerizing and yet terrifying light, leading to a range of emotions—excitement, ecstasy, fascination, fear, and the apprehension of imminent end. Munch described the sunset that made him paint his most famous painting, The Scream, thus: “I was walking along the road with two friends—then the sun set—all at once the sky became blood red—and I felt overcome with melancholy. I stood still and leaned against the railing, dead tired—clouds like blood and tongues like fire hung above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends went on, and I stood alone, trembling with anxiety. I felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature.”
Munch painted many versions of that sky, recollected from memory. At the Munch Museum in Oslo you can see various renderings of The Scream. Munch has been described as a naturalist, and the artist took care to separate himself from Impressionists (the dominant movement of the time). He said he wasn’t like them: “They paint what they see, I paint what I saw.” The English poet William Wordsworth had described poetry as the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquillity: In the turbulent sky that Munch saw, there was nothing tranquil, driving him to desperation.
Munch’s painting shows a cliff on the left, a path with a railing descending beyond the cliff, and, in the fjord beyond, an island with a hill. Three Texan academics—physicists Don Olson and Russell Doescher and English professor Marilynn Olson—retraced Munch’s steps and identified a hill called Ekeberg, where Munch probably saw that sunset. And they made the discovery as they looked towards the south-west, where Munch’s sky had caught fire: It was not a vision from hell, as Munch probably imagined—the academics conjecture that it was the afterglow of the eruption of the Krakatoa in Indonesia. With the help of the art historian at the Munch Museum, they found the road with railings similar to the ones where Munch rested, tired, anxious, melancholy, and lonely, left behind by his friends.
My friends hadn’t left me, even as I felt alone on that darkening island that evening. They were busy talking, the soft sound of their conversation, the clinking of their glasses, the tinkling of their cutlery reminding me that on that September night, as the dark sky threatened to devour the sun, I wasn’t alone. I looked towards the line of lights on the other side of the water, while the clouds had regained their strength, and pressed in, smothering the source of the light in the sky.
You could sense fleeting desperation in that dwindling light, it seemed as if it was gasping, but there was pride in those gasps. The boundaries of the clouds looked singed, as though they had caught fire; the light discovering tiny openings and recesses as it spread out, like the fragile branches of a dying tree, like the fingers of a slipping arm trying to clasp the edge of the cliff, even as it slipped the surly bonds of earth.
The evening was calm now; the water was placid. Others had moved on, and I felt left behind. I walked faster, leaving melancholia. At the corner of the trail, near the railings, my friends were waiting.
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