Referenced in everything from Home Alone to the horror movie Scream and the source of countless parodies, Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893) is one of the most famous paintings of all time. Sometimes also referred to as The Cry, Munch's painting The Scream is known for its expressionistic colors, bright swirling sky, and—of course—its mysterious subject: a person clasping their face, screaming in anguish alone on a dock. Why is the person screaming? What is the meaning of the painting The Scream by Edvard Munch?
The Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream (1893) was painted at the end of the nineteenth century during a unique transitional period in art history, sometimes referred to as the fin de siècle. While artists were once interested in painting their subjects objectively since their success was often measured by their technical skill, by the end of the nineteenth century brave artists like Edvard Munch were starting to use art to express inner thoughts, feelings and emotions instead, often by painting with bright, exaggerated colors and simple shapes. Though reviled by art critics and considered too radical in their time, artists like Munch and even Vincent Van Gogh paved the way for Expressionism and the even more progressive modern art movements of the twentieth century.
So what is the meaning and story behind The Scream? In what he referred to as his “soul painting,” Edvard Munch reveals an honest and perhaps even ugly glimpse of his inner troubles and feelings of anxiety, putting more importance on personal meaning than on technical skill or “beauty,” a traditional goal of art. According to Munch’s diaries, the idea and inspiration for The Scream was very autobiographical, with the modern art painting’s content closely based on a personal experience first recorded in an 1892 diary entry which Munch later adapted into The Scream painting and finally, in 1895, a poem.
What does the famous Edvard Munch quote associated with The Scream painting mean? In the quote, Munch describes what initially sounds like a relaxing evening out in Norway, taking a walk at dusk with some friends beside the fjord. While watching a vivid sunset might sound relaxing and enjoyable, for Munch it was a moment of existential crisis. In what sounds like a panic attack, Munch describes feelings of exhaustion while overwhelmed by an almost violent wave of anxiety. Like most panic attacks, Munch’s experience by the fjord was a lonely internal struggle, as his two friends walk on without him, completely unaware of the artist’s upset.
Like Van Gogh's Starry Night, the landscape of The Scream painting almost vibrates with a swirling and overwhelming feeling and emotion. In the manner of a true Expressionist painter, Munch uses bright colorful imagery to express his chaotic emotional state in that moment, both in his poem and in his painting. Munch draws attention to the momentary intensity of the landscape with brightly saturated, contrasting colors as the “red” sky ignites above the “bluish black” water. While Munch mentions feeling “unspeakably tired” in his poem, his painting also suggests his lightheadedness and helplessness in the situation, with the person in the foreground seemingly being pulled into the painting’s eerily sentient background.
At the end of his poem, Munch mentions hearing “the enormous infinite scream of nature.” In fact, the original German title given by Munch to his work was Der Schrei der Natur ("The Scream of Nature"). Where does the “infinite scream of nature” come from? According to his poem, Munch was psychologically anguished during his experience by the fjord. In the painting, the subject’s mouth and whole face are pulled into the recognizable shape of a scream, but Munch tells us that he heard the scream — importantly, he does not say that he himself actually screamed (at least not out loud). Is this primal scream really coming from the person in the painting or somewhere else?
The repeated use of the word "blood" in Munch’s poem, in combination with the twirling, swirling, and whirling warm tones used in the background suggest an external, physical threat. What is the source of violence in this seemingly isolated landscape in Norway? As it turns out, art history sources indicate that a slaughterhouse was within earshot of the spot illustrated in The Scream painting. The proximity of the slaughterhouse could very well account for Munch's repeated mentions of "blood" in connection with the painting. The haunting screams of dying animals could possibly account for the “infinite scream of nature” that Munch heard.
Was the slaughterhouse the only source of screaming anguish in The Scream? Like Vincent Van Gogh, throughout his life Edvard Munch struggled with anxiety and insanity—both on a personal level and indirectly, through his family. In fact, his mentally ill sister was hospitalized at the time The Scream was painted in 1893. Along with a slaughterhouse, the very mental asylum where Munch's own sister was hospitalized was located very nearby, too. Was the scream Munch heard actually coming from the insane asylum where his sister was? The true meaning behind The Scream may very well come back to the decidedly ugly, even hideous, sounds of living beings undergoing both physical and emotional suffering in the modern age.
Who is the person in The Scream? In his poem, Munch describes almost an all-consuming black hole hell where "tongues of fire" savagely lick at the frazzled and overwhelmed person, unidentifiable as either man or woman. On first glance, Munch’s quote makes it seem that the painting is a self-portrait of the artist himself. While his experience by the fjord may have inspired The Scream, the hairless fetal person in The Scream painting is unrecognizable as either a male or female and has a gaunt, skull-like face. Due to the ambiguity of the subject's gender, the sexless person depicted in the painting may be Munch, or it actually may be Munch’s sick sister, hospitalized in the asylum nearby. In fact, it could be anyone...
What is the meaning of Edvard Munch's 1893 modern art painting The Scream? When it all comes down to it, a "scream" is above all a sound and an auditory sensation. The screaming of both the dying animals and the cries overheard coming from the nearby insane asylum, however faint they may have been, give an added and potent personal meaning to the painting's simple title. Did Munch hear a scream that was in fact a mixture of While the painting may have autobiographical and personal significance for Munch, one reason why The Scream painting is still so famous even today is because it is so universal in its meaning. Anyone can look at The Scream and feel something.
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