Arts and Entertainment

The Scream: Great Art Explained

this video is sponsored by Bright 
Cellars. Offer below, details at the end Under a blood-red sky a terrifying figure 
with a skull-like face is staring out at us. And it appears to be screaming in anguish. 
Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, one of the most famous   images in the history of art has become for 
us, a universal symbol of angst and anxiety. Europe was at the birth of the 
modern era when he painted Ths Scream   and the image reflects the intense anxieties 
that troubled the world at this time. Anxieties   which Edvard Munch himself found overwhelming. 
The figure is in fact, not screaming at all.   Rather it is holding its hands over 
its ears to block out the scream. 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. 
The rich were getting richer, but in Christiania   (now Oslo) living and working conditions were as 
bad as ever, a major cause of death and disease.   Munch himself would endure 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.   His 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 his future work. Munch was looking outside of provincial 
Christiania, 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. Munch was always loathe  to admit that he was influenced by any artists, 
but here we can compare Monet’s solitary figure   lost in thought, with Munch’s own later composition 
whereas Monet’s paintings are a study of light on   the exterior, Munch is exploring the interior life, 
and already shows a preoccupation with loneliness   and angst. The years in Paris were his experimental 
years when Munch 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.   Mostly he was fascinated by Paul Gauguin and 
the symbolists, whose ideas he would expand on.   Gauguin’s use of heavy outline simplified 
shapes and solid blocks of colour   would influence Munch’s style. He would later 
adopt the bold graphic outlines of Gauguin, Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, whose posters 
were on the streets of Paris when Munch arrived.   The young artist was like a sponge, soaking up 
painting styles, ideas, and motifs from different   artists. Sometimes in a more obvious ways – and like 
most artists of this period he experimented with   “Pointillism”. What really interested him about the 
post-impressionists was their rejection of realism   in favor of absolute truth through their 
own emotional experience and imagination.   The unique thing about Munch was how he would take 
these formal tools and ideas from French painting   and then combine them with a northern 
sensibility, more concerned with melancholy.   In 1892, he was invited to Berlin where these 
psychological insights would NOT be welcome. Munch was invited to put on a solo show in Berlin, 
but the organisers had no first-hand experience   of his work. Norwegian paintings of fjords were 
very fashionable and they were expecting this. The Germans thought his work was too raw, too brutal, 
and too unfinished. The show was so controversial   that it would be shut down after a week. Munch 
however, was delighted with the scandal, as his   notoriety ensured he became an overnight sensation. 
In Germany. In Berlin he was friends with the   Swedish writer August Strindberg and, as so often 
with Munch, it was literature he looked to for   inspiration to explain universal human experiences. 
We can see his work in this period as moving away   from painting one image and more towards a series 
of works, that can be viewed in literary terms.   The masterful series he 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 but   eventually grew to a total of 22 works – the scream 
would be just one of them – The Impressionists   had of course worked in series, but more as an 
observation on light and atmospheric conditions.   Whereas Munch was working this way to create a 
total work of art (or in german a “Gesamtkunstwerk”) Munch split the works into four themes and when 
we place them together as he would have, we can   see he was trying to tell a “story”. Here we have 
“The seeds of love”, “the passing of love”, “anxiety’   and “death”. Around this time Munch started to produce 
multiple versions of many of his paintings. There was a practical reason behind it, his idea was to 
keep the “Frieze of Life” together and eventually   donate them as a whole to a museum in Oslo, when he 
died. So when he sold a painting he then produced   a copy to replace it, to avoid breaking up 
the group. The more popular the painting   the more copies there are in existence. On top 
of this, he had a pathological hatred of parting   with his paintings (which he called my children). 
It was as if he couldn’t bear to part with his past.   On the 22nd of January 1892, Munch 
wrote in his diary “I was walking   down the road with two friends, when the sun 
set. Suddenly the sky turned as red as blood.   My friends walked on, I stood there quaking 
with angst and I felt as though a vast endless   scream passed through nature”. What is debatable is 
whether those screams were real or psychological.  The idea of the figure in the landscape and 
man’s relationship to nature, is something   that Munch draws on from the romantic 
tradition of the early 19th century.   But The Scream focuses on the inner psychology of 
man – in relation to nature. A painting he did just   a year before the scream is a rather similar image, 
but with a small crowd of ghostly figures staring   out at us. The painting conveys urban alienation, 
the feeling that you can be all alone in a crowd.   And Munch’s figure in The Scream expresses similar 
ideas about anxiety and alienation. The disturbing   figures are a reoccurring theme for Munch and he 
used the same setting to produce other paintings.   This painting also has the same red and yellow 
sky, mountains and fjords in the background,   but instead of the skeletal figure staring 
out at us there is a self-portrait of Munch. The composition itself is simple, we can divide the 
painting into the bridge, the fjords and the sky.   The main figure is curved and broadens out 
to blend into the background. The two figures   (his friends in the diary entry) are 
vertical unlike the main figure.   This with the sharp diagonals of the bridge, 
anchor us in the real world. The background   suggests the world is dissolving into 
chaos and pre-figures abstract painting.   The tiny figures are deep in conversation 
and despite the chaos they are oblivious.   Munch underlines their emotional distance from the 
protagonist by placing them at a physical distance,  walking away on an absolutely straight road. 
The painting may look as if it is done quickly,   but Munch would go through meticulous preparation. 
Here we see the development of the lone figure as   it goes from the far distance to the foreground. In his diary sketch, the violent red sky develops   and written to the side is his description of 
that walk with his friends. The self-portrait   will give way to the figure we know. Note in 
this sketch, one of the two background figures   is not yet walking away. If we take the two figures 
away completely the scene is not as claustrophobic, and it changes the atmosphere. Every element in the 
painting is carefully planned – and even after all   this planning Munch made last-minute changes, as 
we see with this initial sketch on the reverse. This 1893 painting is probably his first version of
“The Scream”.  It is mixed media – oil tempera and pastel.
This one, also dated 1893, is in pastel. Auctioneer: “107 billion dollars – sold!” The only one in private hands. And this is a later 
copy from 1910 also tempers. All the paintings are   done on unprimed cardboard. Munch often worked with 
cheap material, first because he couldn’t afford   canvas, and later because the texture suited his 
aesthetic. They were often glued onto wooden boards   as we can see here. A treatment no longer used. 
He would use diluted paint, a technique he picked   up from Toulouse-Lautrec, and he deliberately 
left paintings unfinished as a sort of anti-art  statement He wanted the cardboard to show through 
the various diluted layers of pastels, to allow   the process to show. At times he has violently 
stabbed on paint with the back of his brush. He never varnished his work as he liked the matte 
finish, insisting varnish “killed a painting dead”. Then he had something which he called “the horse 
cure”. This was basically leaving his paintings   outside in the garden, in all weathers to “fend for 
themselves”. He thought his paintings should have an   organic life and he wanted them to look aged. Here 
we can see one of the many stains on the painting,   where Munch – in this case – spilled some wax on it.
All of these add up to a nightmare for conservators.   TV NEWS: “Two or three armed, masked men burst into the 
Munch Museum in Oslo, in broad daylight and took   the paintings, as visitors watched”.
One of the ironies about the scream is that   when it was recovered after being stolen it was
quickly jumped upon by a small army of conservators.   Munch however would have preferred they left
it damaged – as part of its ongoing life. I think it is interesting, to look at possible inspiration. 
Scientists have linked the sky’s unnatural colours   to volcanic dust from the eruption of Krakatoa in 
1883, which generated incredible sunsets in Europe   for months after. They have also linked it to a 
phenomenon known as “Nacreous cloud formations”,   common in Norway during winter, which is when Munch
painted The Scream. A possible inspiration for the   figure, is this Peruvian mummy which Munch certainly 
saw on display at the Paris world’s fair of 1889. The figure itself is featureless, ungendered and 
de-individualized, and perhaps one of the reasons   why despite being a deeply personal painting, it 
has become a universal symbol of anxiety. It is a   blank page into which you can project yourself, and 
so it becomes about what we the viewer bring to it.   The figure is looking right at us, which pins 
us down “locking us” into the angst-ridden scene/   Barely visible on the painting, 
is a pencil inscription stating   “Could only have been painted by a madman”. 
Infrared images show that it was Munch’s   handwriting, and that it was written AFTER 
the painting was first exhibited in 1895.   Several important critics had questioned Munch’s 
mental health, and it deeply hurt the artist who   had a morbid fear of insanity. We can look 
at the later added inscription as an angry   ironic comment from Munch. Then there is another 
inscription by Munch on an earlier lithograph.  “I felt a huge scream through nature” confirming that
the figure is not screaming at all, but nature around him is.   What is interesting, is why Munch
was in that location in the first place. The setting of “The Scream” came about 
after the artist took a scenic walk,   as described in his diary. The actual place 
is called Ekberg which overlooks Oslo Fjord,  with a view towards the setting sun during 
the winter months. But as so often with Munch   his strength is how he departs from reality. 
He was not here for the scenery, but to visit   his younger sister Laura, who had recently 
been confined to an asylum near this spot.   Munch’s father had just died, and after a lifetime 
of abandonment, through death and disease, it is not  too difficult to imagine the distress that he must 
have experienced as he left his beloved sister behind.    Her screams of terror must have haunted him 
as he walked away. In a world of extreme and rapid   change, combined with a life of desperate anxiety 
and alienation, Munch, who would have a nervous   breakdown in 1908, must have felt overwhelmed, as 
if his life was unravelling. All of us in some way   understand the desperate feeling Munch must have 
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Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d50FbuyswAU

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