Edvard Munch. The Scream, 1893. Tempera, oil, and pastel on cardboard. 28.9” x 35.8”. National Gallery, Oslo, Norway.
The Scream is to the Modernist period as the Mona Lisa is to the Renaissance: an emblematic representation of a cultural shift in ideals, aesthetics, and approaches, that has become universally identified as a landmark of artistic achievement. Edvard Munch’s masterpiece has been similarly integrated into popular culture, alluded to in everything from horror movies to Doctor Who, and both The Scream and the Mona Lisa have even been stolen from (and recovered for) their respective museums. However, instead of illustrating the precision and composure of the artist depicting an “objective” reality, Munch’s painting is a precursor to the highly subjective Expressionist mode, which aims to capture the artist's thoughts or feelings through the canvas. Painted during a time when Freud and other burgeoning psychoanalysts were beginning to develop theories about the unconscious mind, The Scream is more than a colorful abstraction of reality – it is a haunting and evocative portrayal of the modern self that continues to resonate with us today.
It was perhaps his time in Paris during his early adult years that inspired Munch to progress this idiosyncratic style. He was exposed to the troubled artwork of van Gogh and the vibrant, Post-Impressionist landscapes of Gauguin, both artists utilizing color and lines in imaginative ways. Munch was also greatly influenced by the Symbolist aesthetic, evident by the abstract nature of The Scream. Indeed, Munch was not interested in depicting reality, and in a diary entry from 1889, he seems to anticipate Expressionism, stating “[i]t is not the chair which is to be painted but what the human being has felt in relation to it.” Coinciding with this entry was the World Fair in Paris, where a Peruvian mummy was put on display and is said to be the physical manifestation that inspired the iconic, androgynous figure.
Edvard Munch. The Scream, 1910. Tempera on board. 26” x 32.7”. The Munch Museum, Oslo, Norway.
Though widely recognized among most populations by this terrifying, spectral character in the foreground, Munch’s recollection of the depicted experience is equally as riveting. He recalls the scene in a diary entry on January 22, 1982: “I was walking along the road 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.” The location, despite its tortured and largely nonrepresentational depiction, has since been identified as the Kristiania Fjord, which Munch depicted three other times between 1893-1910 as a part of his cycle The Frieze of Life.
Edvard Munch, November 1933.
Munch manages to encapsulate this “vast infinite scream” through his painting technique. The geometric solidity of the bridge cutting through the center of the image, as well as the two stable silhouettes in the background, contrast sharply with the sinuous, fluid line work of the lake, mountains, and sky. The skeletal character foregrounding the painting holds its skull-like head in terror, its figure echoing the curvature of the surrounding natural elements. The palette is an excited mixture of incongruous hues, each color merely sliding along the edges of its circumscribed space to personify the complex conflict of the mind. Sound, emotion, and image collide in tormented synesthesia, channeling a dismal, existential vision of human nature reflective of Munch’s own childhood afflictions and lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Munch’s The Scream is a depiction of eternal anguish and instability, and its emotional impact, innovative approach, and passionate, symbolic subjectivity continue to echo through the art world with the same vividness it had over 100 years ago.
“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them, and that is eternity.” – Edvard Munch
“My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. My art is grounded in reflections over being different from others. My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.” – Edvard Munch
"The colors live a remarkable life of their own after they have been applied to the canvas." – Edvard Munch
“The camera will never compete with the brush and palette until such time as photography can be taken to Heaven or Hell.” – Edvard Munch
How did you like the episode?