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

by K Shabi PUBLISHED 12 June 2013

In some ways it is surprising that artist Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream is one of the most famous paintings of all time. Painted in Norway in 1893, The Scream is known for its expressionistic colors, bright swirling sky, and--of course—the mysterious person clasping their face and screaming in anguish while standing alone on a dock. What is the meaning of the painting The Scream by Edvard Munch?

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

Art History Behind Edvard Munch's Expressionist Painting The Scream (1893)

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.

The Scream by Edvard Munch: Modern Art Analysis

So what is the meaning and story behind The Scream? What makes Edvard Munch a different kind of artist is that he reveals an honest, even ugly, glimpse of his inner troubles and feelings of anxiety through what he called his “soul painting,” putting more importance on personal meaning than on technical skill or “beauty,” a traditional goal of art. 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 and inspiring landscape to paint, Munch’s personal experience and interpretation of “nature” 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 Painting Quote

What does the famous Edvard Munch quote associated with The Scream painting mean? At first, Munch describes a typical evening out in Norway, taking a walk at sunset with some friends beside the fjord. While an evening out walking by the water might sound relaxing and enjoyable, for Munch it was almost a moment of an existential crisis. Behind him in the background, two obscured people walk away in the other direction with backs turned, probably the "two friends" Munch mentioned.

In the manner of a true Expressionist painter, Munch uses bright, spinning colors to express his chaotic emotional state in that moment. Like Van Gogh's Starry Night, the landscape of The Scream painting almost vibrates with swirling feeling and intensity. The artist comments 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 person, unidentifiable as either man or woman.

The Scream Meaning: Where is the scream coming from?

According to his quote, Munch was mentally overwhelmed during his crisis by the fjord, but some of the language he uses also suggests a physical threat. 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 in the background suggest actual physical violence. What is the source of violence in this seemingly isolated landscape in Norway? Where does the “infinite scream of nature” come from? 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 screaming sound of dying animals could account for the “infinite scream of nature” that Munch heard.

Edvard Munch: Anxiety of the Artist

Was the slaughterhouse the only source of anguish in The Scream? Like Vincent Van Gogh, throughout his life Edvard Munch struggled with insanity—both on a personal level and through his family. In fact, his sister was hospitalized for insanity at the time The Scream was painted in 1893. Along with a slaughterhouse, the very mental asylum where Munch's own sister was recently hospitalized was located very nearby, too. Was the screaming Munch heard actually coming from the insane asylum where his sister was staying? 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.

Screaming Man or Woman?

Who is the person in The Scream? Munch’s quote makes it seem quite clear that the painting is a self-portrait of the artist himself. While his experience by the fjord may have inspired the painting, 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...

The Scream Meaning (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 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. While the painting may have autobiographical significance, 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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