"The Scream," with all its pop culture manifestations - from "Home Alone" to "The Simpsons" to posters, T-shirts and bookbags - may be the most familiar of modern art masterpieces, but Edvard Munch's 1893 painting might still be among the least understood.
The iconic image of the elongated face, its gaping mouth opened in a scream that seems both anguish and horror was so important to Munch, that the very first reproduction came from the artist himself two years after he painted the original. When a patron asked for the original, the Norwegian painter refused to hand it over and instead created another, with a frame etched with an excerpt from his unpublished notes. This is the version now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
"What he says is that he's walking along and he feels the bloody scream through Nature," said Ann Temkin, chief curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, in a Newsmakers interview for ABC News/Yahoo! News. "We all think that the figure is doing the screaming. He actually talks about the figure doing the hearing. He is totally identifying himself with some incredible crisis in the universe."
Temkin explained that though the figure is considered to be Munch, "The Scream" has become something not about his personal angst, but about every person.
"This is a work that is part of the public consciousness of modern art," she said.
And the public will have access to the painting until the end of April, when it will be returned to the private collector who paid close to $120 million for it last year, the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction.
"'The Scream' has its amazing, unique aura, but on the other hand, it's extremely at home with these other landmarks of the beginning of modern art," said Temkin, explaining its placement at MoMA near paintings by van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso. "This lets the public realize that this is not some isolated, freaky outburst of genius on the part of one artist, but part of a dialogue of style and expression very much of its time not just in Norway but throughout Europe."
For all its reproductions, the original has a quality which can never be copied, which is the direct result of the mind and heart of the artist, Temkin said.
"You feel the pressure of the pastel crayon on the paper," she said. "You feel the intensity of the different colors. You feel the raw paper."
Temkin explained that it is only by viewing the original that you realize that the face of the "The Scream" is untouched by color. It's just blank paper.
"I think some of the scariness of the whole thing is realizing that the person, the creature, is actually faceless because the artist has done nothing except for the outline of the face," she said. "When you look at the picture in real life, you get that. You never get that from a reproduction."
And that was certainly the case for the artist. Until he died in 1944, Munch kept one original version of "The Scream" with him always.