What’s the big deal with Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’?

The reason I decided to write this post is because I never understood why The Scream has always been such a famous and iconic work of art. What was so great about it that it sold for $120 million dollars in 2012?

Interesting fact: There are different versions of The Scream– two oil paintings, two pastels and multiple prints.

When looking at The Scream all this time, I had made the mistake of not placing it in it’s historical context. When we look upon creative works of the past, it is easy for us to view them with modern lens and not fully appreciate their significance. Let’s take van Gogh, for example. Many people might look at his painting of sunflowers and shrug it off. What is so extraordinary about a vase of flowers? Surely any artist today can paint something like that, or better. However, if one were to place van Gogh and his work in it’s historical and cultural context, one would fully appreciate what a pioneer he was. An artist who brought in a new and radical style of painting that was a big departure from the artists in the era before him.

I have not used van Gogh as an example without reason. Van Gogh was an Expressionist, as was Edvard Munch. Munch’s work was a reflection of his inner self. And nothing is a greater example of this expressionism than The Scream.

Munch was a Norwegian artist who lived in the same time frame as Sigmund Freud. One of Freud’s beliefs was that childhood experiences can have a significant impact on neurosis This is seen clearly in Munch’s life. At the age of 5, Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis. About a decade later, Munch’s oldest sister succumbed to the same disease. These two deaths left a lasting mark on the artist’s psyche. He suffered from a great deal of anxiety and depression his entire adult life. His fragile health also contributed to his struggles.

Most of Munch’s painting express intense emotions. My favourite is Vampire, originally titled Love and Pain from 1893, which conveys anguish, love and comfort. (Image courtesy: edvardmunch.org)

As much as his poor mental and physical health tormented him, Edvard Munch very much depended on them to feed his work. He wrote: “Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder…My sufferings are a part of myself and my art.”

Did you know? After his death, 1008 paintings, 4443 drawings and 15391 prints were found at Munch’s house.

The tragedies of his life were channeled into his paintings. Following his father’s death from a stroke in 1889, Munch suffered from a great deal of guilt for not being with his father in his last days. This was in spite of them having a rather troubled relationship. Munch’s feelings of guilt, despair and sadness all appeared to contribute to one of the most productive periods of his life, during which he painted works rather aptly titled Melancholy, Jealousy, Despair, Anxiety, Death in a Sickroom, and most significantly– The Scream.

Munch’s inspiration for his most famous painting can be traced back to an event that he wrote down in his diary:

“I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous infinite scream of nature.”

Some people believe that the intense fear that Munch experienced was, in all probability, a panic attack. At this point in time, he had already been dealing with anxiety and depression for decades. His younger sister had been institutionalised. His only other sibling– a brother– had died suddenly of pneumonia. Munch’s father had also recently died of a stroke. Needless to say, Munch wasn’t doing so well.

The Scream (oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard), image source

Given what we know of his mental state at this point in time, The Scream brilliantly conveys this feeling of being overwhelmed. The figure in the foreground is a sexless being, with a distorted face that bears no resemblance to Munch himself. This could perhaps be a reflection of how disconnected Munch felt from his own self.

The great deal of anxiety and intense emotion seen on the figure’s face is somehow intensified by the colours used in the background. The saturated and contrasting colours bring the emotions up a few notches.

The style of painting in The Scream– the distorted face in particular– was something he did not use again. This was not atypical of Munch as he often changed his style depending on the emotion he wished to convey. The fact that he never replicated the style of The Scream, however, might be indicative of his rather unique state of mind at the time of painting– a state he did not wish to revisit again. On the top of one version of The Scream, he wrote: “Can only have been painted by a madman.”

Did you know that The Scream has been the target of several theft attempts? Two attempts were successful– one in 1994, and another in 2004– but they were both recovered eventually. You can read more about them here.

I am a firm believer in interpreting art any which way you like. If a particular piece of art makes you feel nothing, you are under no obligation to like and appreciate it even if it is something as renowned as the Mona Lisa. Before researching about The Scream for this post, I thought that I did not like the painting. This was not because it made me feel nothing. On the contrary, it always made me feel uncomfortable. Looking at it always made me feel dread and anxiety. It is only now that I understand what a testament it is to Munch’s talent to make me feel the exact emotions he meant to convey. Paintings have made me feel happy and sad, but very rarely have them made me feel the panic, anxiety and terror like this one does.

What emotion does The Scream evoke in you?

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