Set in a nightmare-scape, The Scream is one of the most iconic paintings of the 20th century. In the painting, a person, barely human or human only, in essence, clutches their face in anguish. The scene takes place on a bridge over water, the diagonal of the railing of the bridge leading our eye from the main subject looming in the foreground, to two other featureless people further away on the bridge. The bridge and the two other figures are more linear than the subject of the painting: a howling ghost-like figure rising from the bottom center of the frame.
The sky is a twist of colors: mostly vermillion and cadmium yellow, but also viridian and black. A swirl of blue water becomes hills which become part of the sky, the horizon dips and sways. The curves of the water, sky and the subject contrast with the straight lines of the bridge, dividing the canvas. The anguish of the subject’s features, the minimalism of their skull-like head and the riveting colors all come together in an unparalleled illustration of human desperation. The Scream is a portrait of depersonalization—man or woman, young or old, the subject is none of these and all of these at once.
Edvard Munch did many different versions of this painting—done in oil, tempera and pastel, three in pastel and a number of lithographs. The first most iconic version from 1893 is tempera paint, pastel and oil paint on cardboard, found in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, in Oslo, Norway. Munch lived the last 27 years of his life outside Oslo and donated his entire collection of work in his possession at the time of his death to the city of Oslo. The dimensions of this piece are 91 cm by 78 cm, 35 3/4 inches tall by 29 inches wide.
Another similar work in oil from 1910 and one in pastel from 1883 are held in the collection of the Munch Museum, in Norway. Another pastel version from 1893 belongs to a private collector. Munch made a few dozen lithographic versions in 1885, these being black line work on white paper. His slight various between the renditions show his interest in thoroughly exploring the possibilities within the limitations of the composition.
In terms of fame, the painting could be compared to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, or Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The Scream has gone beyond the realm of simply being famous to an object of collective cultural consciousness. The Scream has such an effect on audiences that it has been reproduced in every way possible— printed on t-shirts, tattooed on backs, photoshopped a thousand different ways, and copied by everyone from homeschoolers to Andy Warhol. Says Ivor Braka, a London art merchant, “The Scream is more than a painting, it’s a symbol of psychology as it anticipates the 20th-century traumas of mankind.”
Munch conceived the piece as part of an autobiographical series, The Frieze of Life, which explored his preferred themes of life, death, and despair.
By being non-specific, the subject of the painting is more human, distilled to an essence. They are alone but represent all of humankind. They look straight into our eyes with their glowing eye holes, in a silent shriek that never ends. They wear black, the color of the abyss, the curving shape of their body seeming to be wracked with pain. Whatever is torturing the subject will not end.
However torture-filled the canvas is, this is not Bosch’s Hell. The cast of characters is but three, and only one figure is suffering, floating up from the bottom of the frame like an apparition. A bridge, maybe some hills or the fjords of Munch’s Norway and the sky set the stage. By contrasting the curving shape of the main character against the straight edges of the bridge and the other two figures, the subject is closely entwined with the water, the hills, and the sky. The simplicity of the painting may be a large part of its appeal; it doesn’t take long to get the message, it is a visceral punch.
In 1889, Munch wrote in his diary, “It is not the chair which is to be painted but what the human being has felt in relation to it.” In The Scream, Munch faces the main issue of 20th-century art; he’s not trying to paint a realistic version of the physical world. Munch is not trying to create a photographic representation of anything, he is trying to get to the essence not of what he sees, but what he feels about what he sees.
No guesses are required as to why Munch painted this work. He wrote: “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 color shrieked. This became The Scream.”
Munch wrote in his notebook exactly where he was, what he was feeling and what inspired the work. Munch penned this journal entry while he was in France, which makes it clear that the painting was a recollection and expression of a feeling he had experienced in the past.
Does life imitate art or art imitates life? Probably no painting has received more attention from meteorologists. They often speculate on the “blood red” sky in The Scream using scientific theory. Crediting a weather event, rather than the mood of the painter, scientists have looked to the stratosphere to explain the unusual mix of colors and the strong impression the sky made on Munch as he was walking that evening along with a fjord in Oslo. Explanations range from ash dispersed in the sky due to volcanic explosions to a rare phenomenon called nacreous or polar stratospheric clouds. These “mother of pearl” clouds happen when cold winter air occurs at the same time as high levels of humidity. These types of clouds swirl across the sky in a bright mix of breathtaking colors. The phenomenon is rare, but Oslo is situated in such a way that it could experience the right conditions to create an occurrence. The effect is reported to be so breath-taking that the impression could have made a striking impact on Munch.
Referring back to Munch’s journal entry, he does mention blood-red clouds, but not a strikingly unusual formation of clouds. Meteorologists will continue to vie with psychologists seeking more of an explanation than the artist has already given us, and more definitive influences in The Scream.
To search for more information to inform The Scream, Munch’s other works provide insight that isn’t scientific but at least is the primary source. Despair painted in 1892, Anxiety painted in 1894, and Evening on Karl Johan Street also painted in 1892 give further insight into what the artist was searching to express. All present for the viewer is his mother’s death when he was five years old, the death of his sister Sophie when he was 13, and she was 14, and growing up in deep poverty. After his mother and sister’s death, his father suffered from psychotic episodes and depression. During these times his father, a Christian fundamentalist, explained the family’s deaths as God’s punishment. The combination of tragedy and then the interpretation of the events led to the artist’s obsession with themes relating to human suffering, emotional turmoil, and death.
His father’s medical career as a member of the military led to many moves in Munch’s young life. Due to frequent upheavals and his frail immune system, Munch missed months of school at a time. He took up drawing and painting to fill the time. As a teenager, he was exposed to works displayed by the Norwegian Art Association and copied those works to learn to paint in oil.
Munch was in Paris in 1889 when he received a letter with the news that his father had died. Gripped with grief, the loss felt especially cruel because Munch hadn’t been present at his father’s death, as he had been with his sister and mother. Munch poured himself into his work. He started his series of 22 paintings, The Frieze of Life which he painted while dividing his time between Berlin and Paris. The series included Melancholy, Jealousy, Despair, Anxiety, Death in the Sickroom and The Scream.
Munch said the tragedy in his life fed his work. “My sufferings are part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art,” he said. “I do not paint what I see, but what I saw.”
He didn’t try to hide his themes in his paintings, rather each work reveals his painful life story, inner despair and attempts to cope. He wanted The Scream, as well as his other works, to act as symbols of grief and desperation not only for himself but any viewer. He hoped that by painting them, he would be healed and that they would help others to heal as well.
Around the same time Sigmund Freud was exploring the human psyche, so was Munch. Finding a way to express his inner turmoil through art was to be the foundation of Expressionism. Vincent van Gogh and Munch were painting at the same time, and similarly, both painters took representations of the physical world beyond what they merely observed. Both artists brought a sense of the inner emotional world to the subjects in their work.
Munch’s work has had a lasting effect on painters. His work, especially his woodblock prints that he printed using a unique technique of cutting up the block to ink each one individually, influenced many of the German Expressionists, including August Macke. Artists who concerned themselves with expressing their inner life rather than the physical world have looked to Munch’s color palette, his semi-abstraction of figures and expression of mental anguish. Munch influenced and inspired many other artists who were inspired by his freedom of expression. Manet, Gauguin, and van Gogh considered Munch a profound influence.
Any artist of this stature and any painting this iconic is bound to inspire crime. Among the stories of famous art robberies, The Scream holds the distinction of having been stolen twice. The first day of the winter Olympics in Lillehammer Norway in 1994, when police were distracted with opening festivities, thieves broke a window the National Gallery in Oslo and stole the oil and pastel version of The Scream. The crime had been commissioned and took a mere 50 seconds. The thieves left a note on the wall where the painting had hung: “A thousand thanks for the bad security!” After the thieves demanded $1 million, they were tracked down with a sting operation and arrested. The ringleader Enger, the professional thief who had planned the heist, was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison. He escaped during a field trip in 1999 but was captured 12 days later while trying to buy a train ticket to Copenhagen, wearing a blond wig.
In 2004 a pastel version of The Scream was ripped from the wall of the Munch Museum by two men in black ski masks who threatened guards at gunpoint and terrified museum visitors by waving around pistols. The painting was recovered two years later, without any demand of reward. Three men were convicted on related charges, one having planned the heist, one for supplying the getaway car, and one for driving, but the gunmen were never found.
Two of the pastel versions of The Scream are in museums; one is in private hands. The son of a neighbor, patron, and friend of Munch’s sold the pastel on board in an auction at Sotheby’s in 2012. The piece sold for $119.9 million, the most ever paid at auction for a work of art. In second place at $106.9 million is Pablo Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust. The Scream, the Mona Lisa of our time, sold to an unknown buyer.
Munch suffered mental anguish and at times lost himself in depression. On the back of one of the versions of The Scream, Munch himself wrote, “Can only have been painted by a madman.” He suffered from tuberculosis his entire life and wrote in an undated journal, “I inherited two of mankind's most frightful enemies - the heritage of consumption and insanity – illness, death, and madness were the black angels that stood at my cradle.”
Munch never married and referred to his paintings as his children. He lived alone on an estate outside Oslo. When he died in 1994 at the age of 80, thousands of works were discovered hidden on an unused second floor of his house, behind a locked door. His collection included over a thousand paintings, 4,500 drawings, and 18,000 prints, as well as etchings, lithographs, photographs and woodblock prints--all created by a man known best for a single work, one of the most familiar images in the world.
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