The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944) is one of the most famous paintings in Western art history, and inarguably one of 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.

The painter spent his childhood in Oslo, the second of five children born to a prominent Norwegian family.  His mother and two siblings died when Munch was young. By the age of 17, Munch discovered painting as a tool to articulate his feelings of depression and fear of death.

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

These famous 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. 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.

Trepan mummy from Chachapoya kingdom in Peru. AFP Photo Francois Guillot

Trepan mummy from Chachapoya kingdom in Peru. AFP Photo Francois Guillot

To acheive 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 Edvard Munch paintings, including The Scream, but no other conveys the angst seen in it.  

According to Thomas Hoving, past Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this iconic Munch work

…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 these two famous painters: van Gogh translated his agitation and duress into symbols like cypress trees, sunflowers and menacing skies (read more about Vincent van Gogh paintings), where Munch literally painted his pain.

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.”

Yet another inspiration may have been a Trepan mummy from the Peruvian Chachapoya kingdom (above right). The Trepan mummy was shown at Paris’ Trocadero Museum, and likely at the 1889 World’s Fair, so Munch could have readily seen this image.

Regardless of what inspired Munch, though, the agony 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.