It was the vendor of the present lot who initially suggested Munch as potential subject-matter to Warhol, a suggestion that met with the artist's immediate enthusiasm and inspired him to create an entire series of works based on the paintings of the Norwegian master. In gratitude to the vendor, Warhol even selected The Scream (After Edvard Munch) for him, regarding it as the best of the pictures of this subject.
Of course, considering the endemic nature of Munch's images in the modern world, and especially The Scream, it is surprising that Warhol had not tackled them before. Even in 1984, when The Scream (After Edvard Munch) was executed, the picture was one of the best-known and best-recognised in the world. And it was this 'star quality,' rather than aesthetic merit or masterpiece status that drew Warhol's attention. Looking at some of the other Old Master paintings that he transformed into silkscreens, this becomes a clear common thread, from the Venus of Botticelli to the Mona Lisa and Last Supper of Leonardo. These are pictures that, while being part of high culture, are nonetheless embedded upon the wider public consciousness to a degree sufficient to imply that they are also part of popular culture. The Scream, hanging as a poster on so many teenagers' and students' walls, referenced and parodied in films and cartoons, was clearly ripe for the Warhol treatment.
As the foremost proponent of Pop Art, Warhol had long taken images and objects from popular culture and smuggled them into the realms of High Art. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, though, he began to reverse the process in two ways. On the one hand, he began to turn to his own former subjects, revisiting them knowingly, in a sense pointing to the fact that old Warhols had themselves entered popular culture. And on the other hand, he turned to supposedly 'high' subjects and rendered them in his incongruous silkscreens. Leonardo, Botticelli and here Munch all had their art transformed, featuring lurid colour, given a contemporary spin that somehow also removed some veneer of dignity. This was an almost Duchampian process of appropriation, artistic piracy, a rebellion against time-honoured and force-fed lessons in the history of art that paradoxically doubles as a tribute to another artists who had managed to become a cult figure.
Warhol deliberately imbued a sort of factory aesthetic into his transformations of these masterpieces from the canon of Western art, and in doing so removed the je ne sais quoi that makes people seek to view original works, a fascination demonstrated by the endless crowds that jostle in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. On one level, then, Warhol is being democratic, allowing someone to have their own copy of The Scream without travelling to Scandinavia to view it. It is a peculiar reflection of Warhol's idea of the democratic that his work has a clinical, scientific sheen that removes any sense of the human, of the artist's direct intervention-- as he said, "The reason I'm painting this way is that I want to be a machine, and I feel that whatever I do and do machine-like is what I want to do" (Warhol, quoted in D. Bourdon, Warhol, New York 1995, p. 140). His picture looks more like advertising, like a poster, like a newspaper hot off the press-- like a factory-made, accessible object-- and in this way becomes democratic, approachable.
But on another level, Warhol is being subversive by clearly undermining the hallowed status of the artist and of the art work. While this may seem a paradoxical aim on the part of someone who has followed the vocation of becoming an artist, it is precisely one of the factors that has defined so many of Warhol's greatest works. He was reacting to a culture of the ego and of the macho in art when he began, a culture of the directly-applied yet opaquely-communicated. While the silkscreen process that Warhol adopted in the early 1960s had been intended in part to increase efficiency, it also introduced a new, machine-like neatness that fascinated the artist. This was in part because it was such a world away from the energetic brushwork, splashing, dribbling and splattering of the Abstract Expressionists, whose shadow still loomed so large when Pop first burst onto the scene. It was also a means of re-introducing the figurative. And not just any figurative, but instead precisely the subjects that would be recognised by anyone, not just those 'in the know.' Where the seemingly aloof abstract artists dwealt upon the oft-unrecognisable, Pop artists, "did images that anybody walking down Broadway would recognise in a split second" (Warhol quoted in ibid., p. 461). While he was referring there to the early days, this is no less true of The Scream (After Edvard Munch).
Munch's Scream had already been subjected to a similar process during the Norwegian artist's own lifetime in the fact that he had already converted the oil (which in itself exists in several versions) into a lithograph. The success of this print is reflected, almost a century later, in the fact that it was this, not the oil originals, that Warhol used as his source for The Scream (After Edvard Munch). Aesthetically even practically for the silkscreen artist the reasons for this are evident in the striking and successful appearance of this work. The lines are vivid and vigorous. Perhaps it was to pay some respect to the oils that Warhol has incorporated some of the colours into the lines-- indeed in this sense, it is precisely this version of The Scream (After Edvard Munch) that remains the truest to Munch's vision.
This visible vigour in the lines in The Scream (After Edvard Munch), featuring within the context a Warholian re-visiting of an older work, perhaps appears as a strange volte-face within his oeuvre, the artist re-introducing some of the expressionism against which he had struggled so long. Yet the fact that the lines are printed, manufactured, despite the expressive energy with which they were initially created by the tormented Norwegian artist, removes some of that angst, and again highlights the realm of the artificial and the mass-produced and the industrial within which Warhol thrives and which is so suited to our commercial age. And yet the anxieties that lay at the heart of Munch are not so distant from those that were increasingly occupying Warhol at the time of the creation of The Scream (After Edvard Munch). Many of his friends had died within recent years by this time and so Warhol, who had long been fascinated by death and had deliberately explored it in many of his works and who himself had of course been the victim of a shooting was having serious thoughts about mortality. It is thus not only as an icon that Warhol chose the Scream as a source, but as the slightest hint of a reference to his own inner turmoil. Just as his self-portraits were coming to take on a more sombre and fatalistic tone, so too in his works after Munch Warhol managed to vent and explore and even coyly expose some of his own personal anxieties. He appears in part to hide behind the deniability of the act of appropriation, behind the sleekness of the surface of the printed image, truly belying his claim that, "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and film and me, there I am. There's nothing behind it" (Warhol, quoted in K. Honnef, Andy Warhol 1928-1987 Commerce into Art, Cologne 2000, p. 45). In fact, the surface is at once a ruse, an act of misdirection and yet, as here, as a double bluff, is appropriate-- it is only by scratching away at layer upon layer of meaning within The Scream (After Edvard Munch) that we begin to perceive the complexity, ambiguity, wit and sadness of the work, and of the artist himself.