Making Connections

 

by John Tyler Connoley

September 1, 2004

 

When talking about The Scream, the Edward Munch painting recently stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo, art critics seem torn between describing it as an object of isolation or of connection.

 

First, the critics mention that the painting of a boy on a bridge screaming with his hands on his cheeks perfectly captures the isolation of modern life. The strangeness of the colors, the disinterest of the figures in the background, and the distorted anguish of the boy's face combine to capture the deep sense of despair and loneliness many modern people feel.

 

This leads to a second point, which is that The Scream has become an icon of the twentieth century. It adorns posters, coffee cups, and key chains. There's even a Scream punching balloon that wobbles like a Weeble when you punch it. Edward Munch's painting seems to resonate for a large segment of the population who've fallen in love with its anguished young lad.

 

I love the absurdity of these two concepts being housed in one work of art. Even as it conveys a message of despair and loneliness, The Scream connects people across space and time.

 

Once, when Margaret Atwood was asked if she thought her dark, apocalyptic novels were hopeful, she responded, "Writing is always an act of hope, in that you assume a reader." I think the same is true of all art forms. Even if a painting carries a message of despair, the act of putting it on canvas and setting it out to be seen by others is an act of hope. The artist is assuming an audience, reaching out to make a connection with other human beings.

 

The amazing thing about art is its ability to carry a message from one person to another across space and time. People who couldn't have even imagined my existence have touched my heart and mind with the things they created centuries ago on other continents. The Lady of Uruk, a stone mask carved by an anonymous artist more than four thousand years ago, haunts me with its beauty and delicacy. When it was stolen from the Iraqi National Museum shortly after the invasion of Iraq, I wept as if a good friend had been taken hostage.

 

Another anonymous artist painted murals on the island of Thera. Commissioned by the owner of a coastal home, this artist painted lilies, mountains, and graceful blue monkeys that must have inspired and delighted the homeowner's family and friends. Then the volcano on Thera exploded, covering the house with ash and most likely vaporizing the painter and the patron. Today, archeologists are uncovering the murals so they can be viewed once again, and I know of no one who has seen the murals who's not been inspired and delighted by them. We don't know anything about the artist except what is in the paintings, but the works themselves touch our hearts. They speak to us, centuries later and in a place the painter couldn't have imagined.

 

When I think about art and its ability to make connections, I always think of playing Milton Bradley's Masterpiece as a child in Zambia. In this game, the players buy and sell paintings that have been reproduced on three-by-five cards. The point of the game is to buy paintings that are worth more money than the other player's paintings (while avoiding buying forgeries), but the side benefit is the players become familiar with great works of art.

 

When my sister and I would play, we of course had our favorites. Some of the paintings had nicknames; one Jackson Pollock we called Capenta, naming it after the bags of dried minnows that substituted for snack chips in Zambia; another was simply The Lady with the Red Hat. One of my favorites was Surat's Sunday in the Park. My least favorite was The Rape of the Sabine Women, in which a horse had his leg cut off by a thug (Capenta was a close second).

 

It wasn't until years later, on a trip to Chicago, that I discovered Masterpiece was produced in conjunction with the Chicago Museum of Art. All of the paintings that had made me smile, cringe, look closer, and back away as a child were housed in that museum. As I wandered through the rooms with my hand over my mouth, I felt like I was visiting old friends, or perhaps paying homage to saints. Here was van Gogh's Bedroom, with its wonderful colors and textures. There was Mary Cassatt's Mother and Child, the tenderness of the mother just as I had remembered it. And, around this corner, the Chagall that had both frightened and inspired me.

 

As I stumbled around that museum, it was as if I were surrounded by the voices of these artists, each from a different time and place, all whispering in my ear. Some were crying. Some were laughing. Each was communicating with me, just as they had when I was a child in Zambia.

 

That was the day I finally recognized the magic of art. Whether it's a movie, a novel, or Edward Munch's The Scream, art has the ability to bring people together across space and time. That's why the theft of a painting in Oslo can be news in Indiana, and why the critics couldn't make up their minds about The Scream. Even when a painting is communicating a sense of isolation, it's still communicating.

 

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Copyright 2004 by John Tyler Connoley

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