Edvard Munch's "The Scream" is one of the most famous images in the history of art. The painting has become a universal symbol of angst and anxiety. The figure depicted in the painting has a skull-like face, and it appears to be screaming in anguish. However, the figure is not screaming at all. Rather, it is holding its hands over its ears to block out the scream.
Munch painted "The Scream" during a time of intense anxieties in Europe. Between 1863, when Munch was born, and the years before the First World War, European cities were going through truly exceptional changes. Industrialisation and economic shifts brought fear, obsessions, diseases, political unrest, and radicalism. Questions were being raised about society and the changing role of man within it. About our psyche, our social responsibilities, and most radical of all - about the existence of God.
Munch himself endured a life ravaged by madness, sickness, and death. His mother and his sister both died of Tuberculosis. His father and grandfather suffered from depression, and another sister, Laura, from Schizophrenia. His only brother would later die of pneumonia. Always a sickly child himself, Munch turned to drawing to keep himself occupied in his sick bed. When he later decided to become an artist, his father, a fundamental Christian, gave him no support as he considered the profession "unholy." He told his son that the death of his mother and sister was "divine punishment" for their sins, and his traumatic childhood never left him as an adult. This would have a lasting effect on Munch's work.
Influence of Hans Jæger and rejection of religion and realism
Munch's early paintings were grounded in realism, but in 1884 he joined Christiania's bohemian circle, which was led by the anarchist writer Hans Jæger. Jæger encouraged Munch to reject religion, break with bourgeois principles and morals, and move away from realism to paint his own emotional and psychological state.
A powerful painting dating from this period drew on the death of his sister and mother. It is hard now to imagine the outrage it caused, but the bourgeois Norwegians despised the rough brushstrokes, scratched surface, and the deep melancholy of the piece. The painting and the ensuing scandal would set the tone for Munch's future work.
The Sick Child — Edvard Munch 1885
Influence of Vincent van Gogh and French post-impressionists
Munch was looking outside of provincial Christiania (now Oslo capital of Norway), and on a short trip to Paris in 1885, he had the chance to see the revolutionary work of the Impressionists. Their use of colour and form was a revelation for the young artist. The years in Paris were Munch's experimental years when he was finding his style, and in 1889 he returned to Paris to study for three years. The Eiffel tower had just been completed, the post-impressionists were becoming established, and Vincent van Gogh had just painted "The Starry Night." Van Gogh's expressive and emotional brushwork deeply influenced Munch, as did his use of colour. Munch understood that van Gogh's posthumous fame was thanks to a combination of his paintings and his tragic personal story, and later Munch was not averse to marketing himself as a mad genius, which he understood would play an important role in his art.
Munch was fascinated by the works of the French post-impressionists, particularly Paul Gauguin, whose ideas he would later expand on in his own paintings. One of the ways Gauguin influenced Munch was through his use of heavy outlines, simplified shapes, and solid blocks of colour. Munch adopted these bold graphic outlines from Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose posters were prevalent in Paris when Munch arrived. As a young artist, Munch was like a sponge, absorbing painting styles, ideas, and motifs from different artists. He experimented with "Pointillism," a painting technique popular among the post-impressionists.
However, what fascinated Munch the most about the post-impressionists was their rejection of realism in favour of absolute truth through their own emotional experience and imagination. Munch took these formal tools and ideas from French painting and combined them with a northern sensibility more concerned with melancholy, resulting in a unique style of painting.
Controversy and notoriety
In 1892, Munch was invited to Berlin for a solo show, but the organisers had no first-hand experience with his work. They were expecting Norwegian paintings of fjords, which were fashionable at the time, but instead, they found Munch's work to be too raw, brutal, and unfinished. The show was so controversial that it was shut down after a week. Munch, however, was delighted with the scandal, as his notoriety ensured he became an overnight sensation in Germany.
Seperation — Edvard Munch 1896
The Frieze of Life
In Berlin, Munch was friends with the Swedish writer August Strindberg, and it was literature that he looked to for inspiration to explain universal human experiences. His work during this period moved away from painting one image and more towards a series of works that could be viewed in literary terms. Munch's masterful series produced in the 1890s, "The Frieze of Life," was intended to be seen as a poem of life, love, and death, and it would be his life's major work. The series started with six works but eventually grew to a total of 22 works, with "The Scream" being just one of them.
Munch had a pathological hatred of parting with his paintings, which he called his children. It was as if he couldn't bear to part with his past.
Munch split the works into four themes: "The Seeds of Love," "The Passing of Love," "Anxiety," and "Death." When placed together, as he intended, they form a cohesive story. Around this time, Munch began to produce multiple versions of many of his paintings. His practical idea was to keep "The Frieze of Life" together and eventually donate them as a whole to a museum in Oslo when he died. When he sold a painting, he produced a copy to replace it, to avoid breaking up the group. The more popular the painting, the more copies exist today.
The Scream — Edvard Munch 1893
In a diary entry dated January 22nd, 1892, Munch recounts walking down the road with two friends as the sun set. Suddenly, the sky turned a vivid shade of red and Munch felt as though he heard a vast, endless scream reverberating through nature. While the source of the scream is debatable, its impact on Munch's artistic vision is undeniable.
The composition of The Scream is simple, with the painting divided into the bridge, the fjords, and the sky. Munch drew on the romantic tradition of the early 19th century, which focused on the figure in the landscape and man's relationship to nature. However, in The Scream, Munch shifts his focus to the inner psychology of man in relation to nature. The painting conveys urban alienation, the feeling of being all alone in a crowd, and anxiety. The main figure is curved and broadens out to blend into the background, while the two figures (his friends in the diary entry) are vertical, anchoring us in the real world, and deep in conversation, oblivious to the protagonist's emotional state. Munch underlines their emotional distance by placing them at a physical distance, walking away on an absolutely straight road. The sharp diagonals of the bridge further anchor us in the real world, suggesting that the chaos in the background is only a temporary disturbance.
The setting of The Scream was Ekberg, which overlooks Oslo Fjord and offers a stunning view towards the setting sun. However, Munch's reason for being there was not to admire the scenery. He was visiting his younger sister Laura, who had recently been confined to an asylum near that spot. This visit must have been particularly difficult for Munch, as his father had just passed away and he had experienced a lifetime of abandonment through death and disease. It's not hard to imagine the distress he felt as he left his beloved sister behind, hearing her screams of terror echoing in his mind as he walked away.
The unnatural colours of the sky are thought to have been inspired by the volcanic dust from the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, which generated incredible sunsets in Europe for months afterward. He may also have been inspired by nacreous cloud formations, which are common in Norway during the winter months when he painted the work.
He would go on to have a nervous breakdown in 1908, which suggests that he may have felt overwhelmed as if his life was unraveling. In this context, it's easy to understand the desperate feeling that inspired Munch to create "The Scream," as he wanted to block out all the noise and chaos of the world around him.
Art Techniques and Significance
While the painting may look as if it was done quickly, Munch went through meticulous preparation, with every element in the painting carefully planned. Munch was known for his use of diluted paint, which he picked up from Toulouse-Lautrec. Munch often worked with cheap materials, including unprimed cardboard, because he liked the texture and felt it suited his aesthetic. He deliberately left his paintings unfinished as a sort of anti-art statement, allowing the cardboard to show through the various diluted layers of pastels. He sometimes even violently stabbed the paint with the back of his brush. Munch never varnished his work, preferring the matte finish and insisting that varnish "killed a painting dead."
In addition to his unconventional painting techniques, Munch also had a unique process for preserving his work. He called it "the horse cure," which involved leaving his paintings outside in the garden, in all weathers, to "fend for themselves." He believed that his paintings should have an organic life and should look aged. This has created a nightmare for conservators, as his paintings are often stained and damaged. When "The Scream" was recovered after being stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo, conservators quickly jumped on the opportunity to restore it. However, Munch would have preferred that it remain damaged, as part of its ongoing life.
Despite being a deeply personal painting, "The Scream" has become a universal symbol of anxiety. The figure in the painting is featureless, ungendered, and de-individualised, which makes it a blank page into which the viewer can project themselves. The figure is looking right at the viewer, which pins them down and locks them into the angst-ridden scene.
"Could only have been painted by a madman."
One interesting aspect of the painting is a pencil inscription that reads, "Could only have been painted by a madman." Infrared images show that it was Munch's handwriting and was added after the painting was first exhibited in 1895. Several important critics had questioned Munch's mental health, which deeply hurt the artist, who had a morbid fear of insanity. The added inscription is believed to be an angry, ironic comment from Munch.
Another inscription by Munch on an earlier lithograph reads, "I felt a huge scream through nature." This confirms that the figure in the painting is not screaming at all, but rather that nature around them is screaming.
The Scream is a haunting and powerful painting that continues to captivate viewers more than a century after its creation. Munch's focus on the inner psychology of man in relation to nature and his masterful use of composition and colour make The Scream a masterpiece of modern art.
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