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Meaning of The Scream (1893) Painting by Edvard Munch: Art Analysis

by K Shabi Last Revised: 12 June 2013

Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream has a lot of similarities with Vincent Van Gogh's art Starry Night. For one, both paintings were painted near the end of the century, during the fin de siècle, using bright exaggerated colors and simplistic figures and shapes. Both artists struggled with insanity during their lifetimes, but The Scream (1893) and Starry Night are some of the most reproduced and famous pieces of art in the world today. But what is the meaning of the painting The Scream by Edvard Munch?

Art History Behind Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893)

Meaning of The Scream (1893) Painting by Edvard Munch: Art AnalysisThe Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream was painted in 1893 during a unique transitional period in art history. The Scream was painted after the end of the photographic Realist era, when artists wanted to show off their technical skills. The Scream was also painted right before the Expressionists and other artists of the early twentieth century made it a trend to put a focus on the expression of their inner feelings and emotions through their art rather than displaying how realistically they could paint an image or object.

The Starry Night and The Scream both fall between these two distinct periods in art history, with both paintings often cited by art history scholars as possibly serving as the spark that ignited the big paradigm shift that occurred around this time. Unlike Van Gogh, however, Edvard Munch received much public attention for his art, mostly in the form of media controversy, during his actual lifetime and artistic career.

Edvard Munch: Anxiety of the Artist

In his diaries, the artist Edvard Munch admits that he struggled with insanity not only on a personal level during his life, but also through his family. In fact, his sister was hospitalized for insanity at the time The Scream was painted in 1893. If given a thorough enough analysis, the personal lives of most artists are not perfect portraits of happiness. What makes Edvard Munch a different kind of artist is that he shows us an honest, even ugly, glimpse of his inner troubles and feelings of anxiety through his painting The Scream, putting more importance on personal meaning than on technical skill or “beauty,” a traditional goal of art.

The Scream by Edvard Munch: Modern Art Analysis

According to Munch’s personal diaries, the idea for the modern art painting The Scream came to him while looking down over the Norwegian landscape from an elevation. While a mountaintop or a scenic view from a summit might sound like a beautiful natural landscape to paint, Munch’s personal interpretation of “nature” below was very different than you might imagine.

"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."

Interpretation of Munch's famous The Scream Quote

What does the famous Edvard Munch quote associated with The Scream mean? On the surface, Munch describes a typical evening in Norway, taking a walk at sunset with some friends beside a "fjord." While an evening out walking by the water might sound relaxing and enjoyable at first, on closer look we see that Munch is really describing a moment of an almost existential personal crisis. In the painting's background, we can see two people walking away (probably the "two friends" Munch describes) in the other direction, creating the feelings of isolation and "fear" the artist talks about in his quotation. In the manner of a true Expressionist painter, Munch uses color to express his emotional reactions to his environment, commenting on the "red" sky and the "bluish black" fjord, described almost as an all-consuming black hole hell where "tongues of fire" savagely lick at the frazzled and overwhelmed subject, unidentifiable as either a man or woman.

While there is certainly something ominous about Munch's description of The Scream landscape, the repeated use of the word "blood" in combination with the twirling, swirling, and whirling warm tones used to paint the background suggest actual physical violence. What is the source of violence in this seemingly isolated landscape in Norway? Art history sources indicate that a slaughterhouse was within earshot of the 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.

Along with the slaughterhouse, the very mental asylum where Munch's own sister was hospitalized was very nearby, too, causing us to wonder: Who is the subject in The Scream? While it seems obvious that the painting is a self portrait of the artist himself, due to the ambiguity of the subject's gender, the sexless person depicted in The Scream may actually be a working combination of both Edvard Munch and his sick sister, hospitalized in the asylum nearby.

Meaning of The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch

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 wailing 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 and autobiographical meaning to the painting's simple title. The true meaning behind the title of Edvard Munch's "soul painting" 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.

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