The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is one of the most famous paintings in Western art history — and perhaps the most powerful Expressionist painting ever made. It certainly is the most readily recognized.

Edvard Munch. The Scream, 1893. Tempera and casein on cardboard, 36 by 29".  Munch Museum, Oslo.

Edvard Munch. The Scream, 1893. Tempera and casein on cardboard, 36 by 29″.  Munch Museum, Oslo.

Edvard Munch spent his childhood in Oslo, the second of five children born to a prominent Norwegian family.  Both parents and a younger brother died when Munch was young. By the age of 17, Edvard Munch discovered painting as a tool to articulate his feelings of depression and fear of death.

Although Edvard Munch received little formal training, his style matured in the 1890s after his exposure in Paris to works of Paul Gauguin and to van Gogh’s Arles paintings.  Their energetic brushwork and bold colors provided a subjective vocabulary for personal interpretation of subjects.

These painters were among those experimenting with the direct expression of emotion as the primary element in painting, rather than the Impressionist aesthetic that valued style, form and color more highly.

Edvard Munch viewed art making as a quest to express his most privately-held feelings and beliefs, saying

In my art I have tried to find an explanation for life and to discover its meaning.  I also intended to help others understand life.”

To achieve this goal, Munch created The Frieze of Life, his lifelong series of paintings in which he sought to resolve elementary questions about life. This grand view of the purpose of art was not unusual, and was similarly pursued by artists in works such as

  • Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) in Gates of Hell;
  • Paul Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? Who are We? Where are We Going?; and
  • Pablo Picasso in La Vie.

The Frieze of Life consists of many well-known Munch paintings, including The Scream (and for Edvard Munch fans, other iconic works like Anxiety; Kiss; Vampire; Madonna and Death in the Sickroom, all at the Munch Museum, Oslo).

But no other Munch paintings convey the angst seen in The Scream, which, according to Thomas Hoving,

…truly stands alone in art.  Before Munch, no one in history portrayed human fear and pain outside of specific depictions of gladiatorial contests, battles and hand-to-hand combat, the torturing of saints, or people being attacked by fierce animals.” (1)

As with van Gogh, Munch’s deteriorating mental condition underlies his work.  But an important distinction exists between Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh: van Gogh translated his agitation and duress into symbols like cypress trees, sunflowers and menacing skies (read more about Vincent van Gogh paintings), where Edvard Munch painted his pain literally.

Some art historians believe that he suffered a panic or anxiety attack, recreated in The Scream.  Munch wrote in his diary,

“One evening I was walking along a street, tired and ill, with two friends: the city and the fjord lay below us.  The sun was setting and the clouds turned blood red.  Then I heard the colours of nature scream – and that shrill cry echoed over the fjord.” (2)

Krakatoa volcano.

Krakatoa volcano.

Other art historians reference the 1883 Indonesian volcano, Krakatoa, whose eruption generated deafening sound waves that traveled 1,500 miles, cloaking Europe in preternatural blue and red sunsets for half a year.

After seeing these effects in present day Oslo, Edvard Munch wrote,
I sensed a great, infinite scream pass through nature.”

Regardless of what inspired Edvard Munch, though, the agony in The Scream is excrutiating: the sound is so overpowering and crippling that it distorts the face of the figure, who vainly cups his ears to protect them.  Notably, the two figures in the left background are unaffected, suggesting that the figure’s turmoil may only be internal.

The Scream is a universal symbol of suffering.

Is there any alternative explanation?

1. Hoving, Thomas.  Greatest Works of Art of Western Civilization. New York: Workman Publishing Company, 1997.  Page 64.

2. Edvard Munch, From My Diary, 1929.