Edvard Munch. The Scream. Pastel on board. 1895. © 2012 The Munch
Museum/The Munch-Ellingsen Group/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New

Six days before all hell broke loose, I rode the subway uptown to attend the press preview of Edvard Munch: The Scream at the Museum of Modern Art. As the preview drew to a close and the already crowded room swelled with paying customers, I asked Ann Temkin, the Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture, why she thought Munch’s Symbolism is acceptable to contemporary taste while Ferdinand Hodler’s is not.

To backtrack a bit: Edvard Munch’s 1895 pastel-on-cardboard version of his iconic “The Scream” was recently awarded “the dubious honorific of ‘most expensive work ever to be sold at auction,’” as Karen Rosenberg wrote in The New York Times:

Courtesy of its new owner, [“The Scream”] will remain on view in the fifth-floor painting and sculpture galleries for the next six months. (The purchaser’s identity is an open secret in the art world; numerous unconfirmed reports name the financier and MoMA board member Leon Black.)

The museum has created a mini-Munch display around its pastel centerpiece. Drawn mostly from the museum’s collection, the selection includes “The Storm” (1893), a lush, deep-blue-and-violet nocturne that is a far more masterful and nuanced work than any of the “Scream” paintings.

I put my question to Temkin after taking in these extra Munchs, most of whose anguished images and summary titles, such as “Jealousy,” “Angst,” and “Two People. The Lonely Ones” — especially in relation to “The Storm” and the delicate and tender “The Sick Child” (1896) — landed with a thud.

Not that I am unfamiliar with Munch’s work in general or the Modern’s selection of it in particular — quite the contrary — but I was reacting to a recently refreshed bit of context, namely the current Ferdinand Hodler exhibition at the Neue Galerie , which has thrown Symbolism — the catchall term for both artists’ works — with all of its florid hokeyness into high relief.

While it is obvious that Munch’s quasi-abstract shapes offer more of a modernist kick than Hodler’s Nouveau-ish classicism, it struck me that the difference between a painting like Munch’s “Melancholy” (1891) and Hodler’s “The Disillusioned” (1892) was less of type than of degree.

As the dates of these two paintings suggest, Munch (1863‑1944) and Hodler (1853-1918) were near-contemporaries. The Neue Galerie exhibition, however, presents a Hodler pretty much stripped of Symbolist pretensions, and what’s left — mostly straight-ahead portraits and landscapes — offers quite a bit for the contemporary viewer to enjoy.

Munch’s melodrama is less easily filtered, as it infuses most of his emblematic works. His vision may overtake his subject, but as far as his subject goes, we have to take it or leave it.

We seem to take it, at least most of the time, and Temkin’s response to my question encapsulated the reason, referring to Munch’s “artlessness,” or direct approach to image and materials, as being more in line with today’s standards than what she called Hodler’s “stylization.”

Still, I found that encountering “The Scream,” or at least this pastel version of it, in person brings to the fore its ludicrous, if not intentionally funny side. While the image itself is by now beyond parody, I was suddenly very curious about how much humor (despite what we know of Munch’s precarious mental state) could have been built into the image from the get-go. (For one, the nostrils of the gnome-like figure are scrawled in complementary colors, one blue and one orangey-brown, a trace of whimsy that subtly underscores the clownishness of its ghastly/comic features.)

I asked Temkin whether caricature might have influenced Munch. She answered that she didn’t know of any evidence offhand, but she wouldn’t discount the thought either.

I did some follow-up research, but before Hurricane Sandy disrupted my avenues of inquiry, I couldn’t turn up anything in the literature to support the idea.

We may then need to take Munch at his word, and his words about “The Scream” are ample, inscribed in red on the pastel’s frame:

I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city.

My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

Anyone who leaned out of a window or doorway on Monday night would have “sensed an infinite scream passing through nature,” and it had nothing to do with a sunset.

From the perspective of the past week, Munch’s annotation seems all the more absurd. Does “The Scream” inadvertently articulate the impotence of modern art in capturing true terror, embedding signifiers where real emotion should be? As Barnett Newman said:

[…] terror can exist only if the forces of tragedy are unknown. We now know the terror to expect. Hiroshima showed it to us. We are no longer, then, in the face of mystery.

Newman expresses one of the tenets of modernist self-consciousness: we no longer cower before the unknown, as our pre-Enlightenment forebears once did in front of a painting of the Last Judgment. And yet when an event like Monday night’s breaks through our veneer of calm assurance, we are suddenly thrown upon the vortex of our most primitive fears — and “The Scream” doesn’t even come close.

Edvard Munch: The Scream is on view at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through April 29, 2013.

Thomas Micchelli is an artist and writer.