Edvard Munch's painting The Scream (1893) is one of the most famous paintings of all time and the source of countless parodies, referenced in everything from Home Alone to the horror movie Scream. 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 this person screaming? What is the true meaning of the painting The Scream by Edvard Munch?
The Scream (1893) was painted by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch at the end of the nineteenth century during a unique transitional period in history, often referred to as the fin de siècle. Prior to this time, artists were interested in painting their subjects as objectively as possible, as commercial success was often measured by technical skill in the days before cameras and photography were popular. By the end of the nineteenth century, brave and forward-thinking painters like Edvard Munch were less interested in showing off their technical skills and more inclined to use their 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 set the scene for Expressionism and the even more progressive modern art movements of the twentieth century.
So what is the meaning and story behind The Scream? As was the case for many modern artists, for Munch the meaning of The Scream was profoundly personal. In what he referred to as his "soul painting," Edvard Munch reveals an honest and perhaps even ugly glimpse into his inner troubles and feelings of anxiety, putting more importance on personal meaning and truth than on technical skill or "beauty," another traditional goal of art. The idea and inspiration for The Scream was intensely autobiographical, with the painting's content closely inspired by a personal experience first recorded in Munch's now infamous 1892 diary entry:
In this famous quote and diary entry, Munch describes what initially sounds like a relaxing summer evening in Norway, taking a leisurely walk at dusk with some friends by the water. While watching a vivid sunset might seem like a relaxing and enjoyable pastime, for Munch this simple outing turned into a haunting moment of extreme existential crisis. In what sounds like a panic attack, Munch is overwhelmed by feelings of exhaustion while also struck by an almost violent wave of anxiety. Like most panic attacks, Munch's experience was a lonely, mostly internal struggle, as his two friends walk on without him, completely unaware of the artist's upset.
While Munch describes his struggle poetically in this diary quote, his unique artistic technique adds new dimensions to the meaning and experience The Scream. Like Van Gogh's Starry Night, the landscape of The Scream painting almost vibrates with a swirling whirlpool of feeling and emotion. In the manner of a true Expressionist, Munch uses bright colors and bold strokes to express his chaotic emotional state in that moment. Munch draws attention to the momentary intensity of the landscape with brightly saturated, contrasting colors as the fiery sky ignites above a "bluish black" abyss. While Munch mentions feeling "unspeakably tired," the painting also suggests his lightheadedness and helplessness in that moment, with the person in the foreground seemingly being pulled into the painting's eerily sentient background.
At the end of the diary entry, Munch importantly hears "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? 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 (that is, at least not out loud). Is this primal scream really coming from the person in the painting or somewhere else?
Munch's repeated use of the word "blood," in combination with the twirling, swirling, and whirling warm tones of the sanguine sky suggest an external, physical threat. But what is the source of violence in this seemingly isolated and still Norwegian landscape? Studying this particular geographical area, Munch scholars have found that a slaughterhouse was located within earshot of the spot illustrated in The Scream painting. Was the nearby slaughterhouse the source of the violence Munch mentioned in his diary entry? The haunting distant cries of dying animals could be the "infinite scream of nature" that Munch heard on that unpleasant evening.
Was the slaughterhouse the only cause of personal anguish in Munch's painting The Scream? Like Van Gogh, Munch struggled with anxiety and insanity throughout his life — both on a personal level and indirectly, through his family. In fact, Munch's mentally ill sister was hospitalized at the time The Scream was painted in 1893. Along with the slaughterhouse mentioned above, the very mental asylum where Munch's own sister stayed was located in the same area. Was the scream Munch heard coming from that very asylum? 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 portrayed in The Scream? In his diary entry, Munch describes an almost 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 words make 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, almost fetal person in The Scream painting is unrecognizable as either a male or female and has a gaunt, skull-like face. Is it a man or a woman? Someone young or old? ...You or me?! 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 really 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 screams of dying animals and the cries possibly overheard from the nearby insane asylum, however faint they may have been, give an added and potent personal meaning to the painting's simple title. Was Munch's "scream of nature" a haunting mixture of all of the above? While the painting has obvious 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.