One strange day in Oslo, a troubled artist was walking down the road. He was about to get a lot more troubled.
“The sun was setting. I felt a wave of sadness,” he later wrote. “The sky suddenly turned blood-red. I stopped, leaning against the fence. Tired to death — looked out over the flaming clouds like blood and swords. […] I stood there quaking with angst — and I felt as though a vast, endless Scream passed through nature.”
That apocalyptic moment sparked one of the most recognisable works of art in history: The Scream, by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. In 2012, it became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction to date, changing hands for a cool US$119.9 million. It’s been called “an icon of modern art, a Mona Lisa for our time.”
But a gnawing question remains, one that art critics seem to have ignored. What the heck caused the sky to go so eerily psychedelic that day? Was Munch just hallucinating? Nope, said a group of astronomers in 2003. The actual answer to the high-altitude fireworks: a volcanic eruption that happened months ago, half a world away.
In the afternoon of August 26, 1883, Mount Krakatoa, in what is now Indonesia, erupted. And erupted with the force of 200 megatonnes of TNT — four times more powerful than the largest thermonuclear weapon ever detonated. The explosion was so loud it was heard nearly 3,000 kilometres away in Perth, Australia. Some 36,000 people perished in the catastrophe.
But far from being a one-off catastrophe, Krakatoa’s effects reverberated for years. Tonnes of volcanic ash changed climates everywhere. In the northern hemisphere, average temperatures fell by 1.2 degrees Celsius. And as the ash cloud drifted across the globe’s atmosphere, Europe experienced odd, powerful sunsets for months afterwards — the one that so violently affected Munch.
Why do I mention all this? Because sometimes, the backstory behind a great work of art is just as fascinating, if not more so, than the thing itself. For a brief time, Norway and Krakatoa were indelibly linked in a way that would change art history forever.
Here be Icebergs! The ‘Frame Effect’
Ernest Hemingway is renowned for the stark power of his spare, minimalist prose. He called it the theory of omission, or the iceberg theory. If you wrote a tale well enough, he said, you could omit certain plot points entirely. They would lurk beneath the surface of the actual story, in the same way that ”the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eight of it being above water.”
I feel that way about The Scream. The painting itself? Doesn’t really do it for me. But the fact that coincidence, Mother Nature’s fury and the interconnectivity of the globe came together to create it. Now that I know that backstory, I can’t see it without a shiver running down my spine. Which is, presumably, what Munch intended all along.
My point: that once you know why and how something was created, or what happened to the creator, it can transform your appreciation of that work.
Don’t believe me? I’m betting you won’t be able to read the quote below without the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.
“It is a very strange habit to write in a diary. Not only that I have never written before, but it strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the outpouring of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.”
- Jessica Fontain
Nothing? Let’s try again, with the real author of that quote this time.
“It is a very strange habit to write in a diary. Not only that I have never written before, but it strikes me that later neither I, nor anyone else, will care for the outpourings of a 13-year-old schoolgirl.”
- Anne Frank
If you didn’t know who Anne Frank was, and how her diary came to be one of the most famed books of all time, that quote wouldn’t hold any power. But it’s the story that happened around her diary that really matters — that she was captured by the Nazis, placed in a brutal concentration camp, and died just weeks before the camp was liberated in 1945. Now we read those words and shiver. Now, of course, we know that the whole world came to care about the outpourings of that 13-year-old schoolgirl.
Perhaps we should take a leaf out of Hemingway’s book and call this ‘the frame effect’. The painting itself provides one angle of appreciation. But everything we know about the circumstances of the painting adds an entirely new facet of meaning.
The Caption Makes the Photo
Photography might be the simplest way to demonstrate this effect. In the quote above, the words seem banal and sweet. They only become chilling when we know the full story of Anne Frank. With this photo, it’s the opposite:
Good heavens! What happened there? Are these the victims of some brutal purge? A street riot? A building collapse? Far from it.
The actual caption is: Princeton students pose after a freshman versus sophomore snowball fight in 1893. Suddenly, our attitude changes. We stop peering nervously at this shot, wincing at the bruises, and can chuckle at what appears to be the most hard-core students ever to grace an Ivy League university.
As a writer and editor, I find the whole idea of a back-story phenomena fascinating. It’s why sometimes, the ‘making of’ video can trump the original piece of content. Take the Vietnam war classic Apocalypse Now. As the ‘making of’ documentary Hearts of Darkness shows, this was one of the toughest movies to make, ever.
To name just a few insane anecdotes: lead star Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack on set and nearly died. Filming temporarily shut down.
Marlon Brando flew in for filming: he was grossly overweight and had not even read the script. So the director feverishly read the script out loud to a sluggish Brando, who looked more like an albino whale than the grizzled colonel he was playing. Filming temporarily shut down.
Helicopters loaned by the Filipino government for battle scenes were constantly recalled — because the authorities had to use them to fight Communist insurgents. Filming temporarily shut down.
Frankly it’s a miracle the film got made at all. How could the fictional movie top the real life craziness behind the scenes?
An Eyeful and an Earful
I’ll leave you with one last backstory.
Recognise this? It’s Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and it appears to be a swirling, gloriously romantic view of the night sky.
Does your view of the painting change when you learn he painted this vista from the window of the asylum he was then holed up in? Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to this institution after a nervous breakdown. You know the one — it was when he cut off part of his ear.
The Birth of Dracula: ‘twas a Dark and Stormy Night…
Krakatoa wasn’t the first volcano that impacted the world of art. In 1815, Krakatoa’s neighbour, Mount Tambora, erupted with such force that it created climate abnormalities for years.
Thus 1816 became known, cheerlessly, as the Year Without a Summer, Poverty Year and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death. Today it’s known as the Little Ice Age, but in 1816, four Europeans just knew it as a summer of incessant rainfall. Their holiday on Lake Geneva turned out to be very dreary indeed, they stayed inside and challenged each other to write the scariest story they could.
Those people were Mary Shelley and John William Polidori, who wrote Frankenstein and The Vampyre. Frankenstein needs no explanation. The lesser-known The Vampyre, a tale dripping with bloodsucking horror, inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula. So without that volcanic eruption, the world of horror today would look very different indeed.