They say a picture paints a thousand words, and The Scream by Edvard Munch is proof positive that this is true.
Anxious, flighty, and wracked with discomfort, this painting embodies more of Munch’s inner character than an entire autobiography could.
Pain and Panic
The Scream is aptly named, as this famous artwork inspires a great deal of discomfort when examined at any length. In the forefront, a central, ghost-like figure seems to be moving past in a dark cloak with hands clasped on either side of his head. His face betrays a look of horror, mouth hanging ajar and eyes round as saucers.
In the background, a warm sky contrasts with an amorphous section of black and blue to create an unsettling sense of unrest that extends beyond the main figure into the rest of the world.
Edvard Munch, an otherwise little-known Norweigan artist, painted The Scream in 1893. He painted two versions, as well as pastel-on-board recreations and lithographs.
The National Museum in Oslo houses The Scream, along with other important pieces of Munch’s work, much of which remained holed up in his home until after his death.
The Scream is largely thought to be a reflection upon Munch’s own internal struggles. His mother and sister both died when he was very young, and his father subsequently became quite distant, leaving Munch feeling isolated and uneasy.
Munch gave accounts of the moment that actually inspired him to paint The Scream several times. Apparently, Munch was walking with several friends in Oslo when he suddenly felt ill and agitated. He noticed that the sky appeared quite red, and felt as if he could hear the entire world let out a collective scream.
In this sense, the figure depicted in the painting isn’t Munch himself at all (as is sometimes assumed), but instead a depiction of man collectively. This means that, yes, Munch is the subject of The Scream, but so are you, and so is everyone else. Perhaps this is the reason for the painting’s great success: it speaks to a collective sense of anxiety and turmoil experienced by every modern human.
Indeed, kinship to The Scream is still felt today, as modern graphic artists have even adapted the painting into 3D, computer generated works. This is certainly a nod to the lasting significance of this work.
Munch was interested in depicting such universal concerns with his work, and often regarded his paintings as if they were his children. Munch’s style was born out of the freedom that the Impressionists had forged, allowing for bolder colors and more abstract subject matter.
Munch and his contemporaries were known as Expressionists, a sort of riff off of the slightly earlier Impressionist movement which began in France. These artists, and Munch in particular, employed graphic depictions, vivid colors, and open-ended symbolism to speak to universal truths.
Like many great artists, Munch was battling his own demons, and they often expressed themselves in his work. Other important Expressionist artists were names like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, who also used color liberally and weren’t all that hung up on literal depictions.
The Scream was painted more than 120 years ago, but it’s never been more relevant. The same afflictions that the painting represents and evokes plague global cultures the world around us today as much as they did in 1893. Munch certainly succeeded in plucking out the root of a universal truth with this iconic work.