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Great Paintings Explored: The Scream by Edvard Munch - the roots of an iconic image.

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch. Oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard. 73.5 x 91cm. National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. Image source National Gallery in Oslo, Norway (creative commons)

The Scream was painted by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch in 1893. It has become Munch’s most famous painting and one of the most recognisable works of art in popular culture.

It shows a figure clutching the sides of their face as they stand on an elevated road with a dramatic landscape behind. With their mouth wide open, they give the appearance of emitting a piercing scream.

Or is it the other way around? Is the scream happening all around them and they cover their ears to block out the sound?

Through his capacity for painterly inventiveness, Munch manages to illicit an emotional response even before we can fully account for the subject matter.

Yet its meaning remains difficult to pin down, not least because Munch himself was a complex personality who consciously created a poetic, almost mythical account of his own anguished inspiration.

“My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness,” he once wrote, adding to his personal mythology, “Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder… They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

Genesis of The Scream

Munch was clearly an artist who was sensitive to the potential “moods” of the natural world. In a recollection from January 1892, he recorded the genesis of the painting:

“One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord — the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked. This became The Scream.”

The landscape in the picture is assumed to be the Kristiania fjord (now called the Oslo fjord) as seen from Ekeberg hill in Oslo.

It was not the first time Munch had considered a painting from this perspective over the city. In an earlier work, made in 1892, Munch captured a similar view over the fjord. Titled Despair, this painting was one of many that utilised the same seething landscape and swirling sky.

Despair (1892) by Edvard Munch. Oil on canvas. 92 x 67cm. Thiel Gallery, Stockholm. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Munch carried many elements over from Despair into The Scream, from the blood-red sky to the diagonal stretch of railings. He often worked in “series” like this, where the same motifs reappear across multiple works.

Where the greatest difference lies here is in the pensive figure at the front — reasonably presumed to be Munch himself. This cosmopolitan man gives the work a placid, existential air. If we can detect suffering, then it is of a reflective, preoccupied nature.

The Scream would intensify the turmoil, replacing inner rumination with an exterior shriek of horror.

Munch’s journey to The Scream

“Illness, Insanity and Death were the black angels that stood by my cradle.”

This is how Munch reflected on his childhood, and not without good reason. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five. Edvard’s own health was sickly and he too suffered from tubercular attacks; then at fourteen, he watched his older sister Sofie die from the same disease.

Munch grew up in a devoutly Christian household. He particularly resented the vigorously Lutheran outlook of his father, whom he described as “temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious — to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness.”

In this austere environment, Munch turned to painting and drawing to express his sense of personal psychopathy.

At 16 he decided to become a professional painter, and by the age of 20 he was already attracting notoriety. At his first public exhibition in 1883, Munch presented a full-length portrait of Karl Jensen-Hjell, an infamous local bohemian. Influenced by the Impressionists, the painting’s imprecise style won a critic’s scathing response: “It is Impressionism carried to the extreme. It is a travesty of art.”

Munch laboured hard to define his own style. In 1885, he began work on a pivotal work, The Sick Child, a painting which shows a young girl dying from tuberculosis — recounting the memory of his sister’s death.

The Sick Child (1885-86) by Edvard Munch. Oil on canvas. 120 × 118.5 cm. National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Image source Wikimedia Commons

Whilst The Sick Child is still in the Impressionist manner, using layers of daubed paint to create the scene, it was the high degree of subjectivity that made the difference. “I paint not what I see but what I saw,” as Munch would later declare.

In 1889, aged 25, Munch left Norway for Paris. Here he had access to the Louvre and came into contact with the works of Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh. Munch was particularly inspired by Gauguin’s “reaction against realism” and his proclamation that “art was human work and not an imitation of Nature.

”While still in Paris, Munch received the delayed announcement of his father’s death from heart failure. Prompted by the news, Munch took up a rented room in the Saint-Cloud suburb of Paris and wrote his so-called “Saint-Cloud Manifesto,” in which he voiced his intention to represent the human passions and erotic dreams as if they were sacred subjects.

The manifesto proclaimed: “No longer would interiors, people who read and women who knit, be painted. There should be living people who breathe and feel, suffer and love.

”Night in Saint-Cloud (1890) by Edvard Munch. Oil on canvas. 54 × 64.5 cm. National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Image source Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1890s, Munch made a series of pictures of dark, moonlit spaces, often with the romantic motif of a lone figure looking out of a window. The most successful of these, Night in Saint-Cloud, painted in 1890, captures a sombre interior infused with a tone of emotional or sexual malaise.

After his father’s death, Munch returned home but found the conditions close to unbearable: “I live with the dead — my mother, my sister, my grandfather, my father… Kill yourself and then it’s over. Why live?”

The Berlin years and The Scream

Munch’s artistic career took a significant turn in 1892 when he was invited to hold a one-man show in Berlin at the request of the Union of Berlin Artists.

Norway was in vogue in Germany at the time, and Munch’s work was admired for its poetic, melancholic air. The show was promoted as “Ibsenesque mood painting”.

However, the works shown provoked bitter uproar among the critics — “unfinished sketches” and “terrible attempts” were how some described them — and after just one week, the Union of Berlin Artists voted to close the exhibition.

Munch however enjoyed the “great commotion”, recording in a letter: “Never have I had such an amusing time — it’s incredible that something as innocent as painting should have created such a stir.”

It was in Berlin, among this turbulent but stimulating atmosphere, that Munch painted The Scream. He returned to the memory of the blood-red sunset, but this time removed all trace of realism, replacing it with a primordial, semi-abstract sign of personal terror.

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch. Oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard. 73.5 x 91cm. National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. Image source National Gallery in Oslo, Norway (creative commons)

The work was made with a combination of oil paints, pastels and tempera, creating a hazy, rapidly-rendered effect. Through a brilliant handling of contrasting tones of orange and blue, along with touches of yellow and green, Munch creates a fermenting whirlpool of visual activity.

Notice how the painting uses alternative types of lines to effect tension: whilst the road and its wooden fence are described in perfect straight lines, the figure and the landscape are deliberately made up only of weaving, curving waves.

This contrast, between man-made and organic elements, places the open-mouthed figure firmly into the category of “nature.” The durability of the road is counterpoised against the mutability — and therefore vulnerability — of human nature. Like the meandering landscape, the figure is preserved in a never-ending process of flux.

Detail of ‘The Scream’ (1893) by Edvard Munch. Oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard. 73.5 x 91cm. National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. Image source National Gallery in Oslo, Norway (creative commons)

One of the more perplexing aspects of this painting is the surprisingly delicate nature of the picture surface. For an image that is marked almost indelibly on our collective conscious, the surface of the work is remarkably fragile and sparse in detail.

Take the famous face for instance, the very heart of The Scream, the features of which are barely rendered at all. Munch has painted the eyes in two circular swipes of white paint, overlaid with a yellowish wash. A single dash inside each eye creates the pupil. Likewise, the nose and mouth of the tormented face are rendered with the most minimal of ingredients.

Munch’s deliberate paring-down of features contributes to the androgynous veneer of the figure, whose domed head and hairless appearance helps to concentrate our attention on the excruciating expression.

Growing fame

During the 1890s, Munch’s work became widely known through periodicals in Paris and Berlin. When, in 1896, Munch moved to Paris, he focused on graphic representations, further developing his woodcut and lithographic techniques for wider circulation.

Munch later made two oil paintings, two pastels and numerous prints of The Scream, bringing the shriek of horror to as broad an audience as possible.

Lithograph of ‘The Scream’ (1895) by Edvard Munch. Lithograph. Wellcome Library, UK. Image source Wikimedia Commons

By now, Munch’s work was gaining devotees. In his bold compositions and daring colour palette, admirers recognised a leading light of Symbolist painting, especially in Germany where his influence would be a driving spur for the German Expressionists of the early 20th century.

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