The Scream by Edvard Munch: an (emot)icon of modern anxiety and a mysterious inscription

The Scream by Edvard Munch

“Can only have been painted by a mad man!”

If you are an art nerd (or simply on the way of becoming one!), you might have heard the latest news about a recent discovery regarding the famous painting The Scream by Edvard Munch, painted in 1893.

I will share a personal story with you. During my University years, I completed my semester abroad studying art history at the University of Oslo, where I attended a semester-long monographic course dedicated to Edvard Munch (what a nerd, I know). Having had the possibility to dedicate an entire course to Norway’s most famous artist, taught by one of the most knowledgable teachers I ever had, made me become a true Munch-nerd.

Additionally, I had the luck of having The National Gallery of Oslo just a few underground-stops away from my residence, which allowed me to view The Scream multiple times. What a luck.

Hence, while it is true that I should complete the Walk of Atonement (Game of Thrones dixit) for not having yet seen The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, I have visited The Scream by Edvard Munch an infinite number of times.

Together with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn, The Scream is arguably one of the most known artworks in the history of known artworks (!). It was painted by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, icon of Expressionism, an art movement – to put it in simple terms – where artists express their feelings and emotions onto canvas. In these artworks, the emphasis on the expression of emotions takes over the naturalistic representation of reality.

But what’s this news everyone has been talking about? Well, to understand it, let’s take a step back.

The origins of The Scream

As you might know already,The Scream by Edvard Munch is an autobiographical account of the artist. This is made clear by the fact that he even described the events that lead to its creation in his diary:

“I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – I felt a breath of melancholy – Suddenly the sky turned blood-red – I stopped and leant against the railing deadly tired – looking out across flaming clouds that hung like blood and sword over the deep blue fjord and town – My friends walked on – I stood there trembling with anxiety and I felt a great, infinite scream through nature.”

You might have perceived that this is a literal description of the painting, detailing an event that the artist experienced first hand. Hence, one understands that, apart from being autobiographical, The Scream also aims to be a visual representation of Munch’s anxious personality.

In fact, Munch was among those artists who were suffering of anxiety and mental disorders as consequence – among other factors – of the evolving modern world and its irreversible impacts on nature brought with the Fin de siècle.

To better understand this phenomenon, have a look at Evening on Karl Johan Street” (1892), where the artist is seen standing alone, on the right hand side of the painting, walking in opposite direction to the rest of the population. Represented on the left hand side of the painting, these individuals are seen walking together, portrayed like zombies, inexorably following the evolution of society and the modern world.

Edvard Munch. Evening on Karl Johan Street, 1892, oil on cardboard, 84,5 x 121 cm. Bergen Kunstmuseum, Bergen

Hence, The Scream would be seen as a symbol of said modern anxiety and alienation.

The news: the author of a mysterious inscription!

Why is this important? Well, this interpretation of The Scream as a visual representation of the artist’s own anxiety would be further proved and sustained by the mysterious inscription written in tiny letters on the top-left corner of the painting which reads:

Could have only been painted by a mad man!”.

An infrared photo of Munch’s inscription on “The Scream.”
Credits: NASJONALMUSEET / BØRRE HØSTLAND

You see, art historians have for long debated on the identity of the author, discussing whether it was the product of a subsequent vandalic attack or it was written by the very Edvard Munch.

The debate has been on-going. For years.

Until now.

In fact, recent studies carried out by the Munch Museum in Oslo have confirmed that those are indeed the artist’s own words, conclusion determined after having carefully compared his handwriting with this phrase through several analysis.

This enables us to discover more aspects of Munch’s personality and, hence, interpret his art in a more accurate way. It would be a testimony of the artist’s own vulnerability and the result of his tortured psyche.

In fact, one needs to know that Munch was very concerned about hereditary diseases, as mental illnesses were recurrent in his family. As the artist wrote:

Illness, insanity and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life”.

Death had accompanied him from his early years, separating him from his mother, his sister Sophie – for whom he painted The Sick Child” (1885) – having died at the age of 14 when Munch was only 5 years old – and his dad.

Edvard Munch. The Sick Child, 1885, oil on canvas, 118, 5 x 120 cm. The National Gallery of Oslo

Painting analysis: discover The Scream

But let’s have a look at the painting and discover what The Scream by Edvard Munch is trying to tell us. Context is important!”, as I always tell my students.

The Scream, together with his most tormented and tortured works, belongs to the famous “The Frieze of Life”, a series of artworks by Edvard Munch whose narrative thread is the anguish caused by love, illness, fear and death. Being the most recurrent emotions in the artist’s life, these artworks all depict scenes and subjects inspired in the artist’s own life experiences.

I remember that the first thing I thought when I saw this painting for the first time was “it’s so small!” (Only 91 x 73 cm!).

The Scream depicts a distorted landscape with a central figure and two figures on the left, in the middle ground. The figure in the centre immediately stands out for being an androgynous skull-shaped individual – which even has its own emoticon! – with elongated hands and ovoid-like eyes and mouth. Following the above mentioned theories, it would be a distorted self-portrait of the artist himself, which really appears to be screaming, a sound that enters our bones rather than be merely heard with our ears.

The setting depicted is the view of the Kristiania Fjord from Valhallveien, a road on the Ekeberg Hill, a southern neighbourhood of Oslo.

Edvard Munch. The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, 91 x 73 cm. The National Gallery of Oslo

The painting is characterised by heterogeneous brushstrokes and pastel lines, all with different thicknesses, which enhance the emotions the artist must have felt when he depicted this scene.

The sensation of turmoil is enhanced by the three strong diagonal lines that cross the painting, which form the railings along the path where the alien-like figure is located. Furthermore, these lines seem to be connecting yet separating Munch from the two other figures on the left.

The curvilinear line formed by the water of the fjord and the town of Kristiania (today’s Oslo) further highlights this purpose, their swirls adding dynamism to the scene.

Edvard Munch. The Scream, 1893, oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, 91 x 73 cm. The National Gallery of Oslo (Norway)

Talking about perspective, if it wasn’t for the difference in scale between the figure in the foreground and the two figures in the middle ground, it would be very hard to perceive a sensation of depth, to spatially organise the landscape, and to understand the different picture planes that form the scene. Again, unsettling and oppressing the viewer.

The choice of colour is another important element in the realisation of this painting and in the successful conveyance of oppressive emotions. In fact, the use of strong, saturated oranges, ochres and reds used in the sky surely seem to burn. This creates an excellent visual representation of the scene described in Munch’s diary – “Suddenly the sky turned blood-red – I stopped and leant against the railing deadly tired – looking out across flaming clouds that hung like blood and sword over the deep blue fjord and town” – allowing us to see what he saw through his own eyes.

Moreover, the three main colour patches that form the composition are separated and enhanced by the diagonal and curvilinear lines, dividing the pictorial space into the earthly brown tones of the path, the blue tones of the water, and the ones of the sky.

Hence, Munch uses the Formal Elements of art (composition, line, colour, pictorial space, among others) to visually create the “scream of nature (as described in his diary), seen through the use of strong and saturated colours, the inclusion of simplified and distorted forms, and the insertion of dynamic diagonal and curvilinear lines which all intensify the emotional power of the artwork.

The Scream is everywhere!                                   

Something that always confused me before following the course on Edvard Munch at University was that whenever I looked up the artwork on the internet, I always seemed to find a different version each time.It’s always different”, I thought are there more versions?”.

Hence, let me save you from this brain-teaser and confirm you that indeed, even if this version – the one with the inscription – is the most famous one, Munch created four versions of The Scream (yes, one wasn’t enough!).

The one we are talking about is an oil, tempera and pastel onto cardboard (yes, on cardboard!) painted in 1893 and exhibited at The National Gallery of Oslo. Fun fact: it was stolen in 1894 (I guess all artworks need to be stolen at least once to become famous!). The second version is a pastel on cardboard, also made in 1893 and exhibited at the Munch Museum in Oslo, which was also stolen in 2004. The same museum also owns the third version, a tempera on cardboard painted in 1910.

Lastly, a fourth version was painted in 1895 using pastel on cardboard, which now belongs to a private collector and whose purchase broke the auction records, being sold for almost $120 million at Sotheby’s in 2012. It was the highest amount ever paid for a painting at an auction!

1st version

2nd version

3rd version

4th version

Fun fact: Munch also made a lithograph version of his The Scream (personally, my favourite) which allows the picture to be reproduced by using the lithographic printing method.

Edvard Munch. The Scream, 1895, lithograph print. Munch Museum, Oslo

The existence of several copies of the same subject makes one understand how Munch was deeply affected by this event, which lead him to reinterpret this subject matter and revisit this anxious life experience several times in his life. In fact, it was through art that Edvard Munch managed to channel the strong emotions he experienced.

Influences and impact

Fun fact! It is said that the androgynous figure of The Scream was inspired by a Peruvian mummy which was exhibited at the World Exhibition of 1889 in Paris.

One of the possible mummies that could have served as inspiration for The Scream.
Unknown. Chachapoya mummy, aprox. 9th-15th century. Musée de l’homme, Paris

To end, I would like to draw your attention to the impact The Scream by Edvard Munch has had on contemporary society, being the subject of replicas not only in the art world (Andy Warhol’s prints The Scream (After Munch) being an example) but also in film, communication and journalism, to name a few. Examples that come to my mind are the mask used for the movie series Scream (1996-present), whose design was openly inspired in Munch’s masterpiece; or the cover of the Times magazine of the 31st of March 1961, which replicates the artwork. Or the famous emoticon, again, used daily by millions of people worldwide.

Mask designed by Brigitte Sleiertin for the movie series Scream, inspired in The Scream by Edvard Munch

It is undeniable that this artwork is charged of strong emotions, and that the discovery of the identity of the author of the mysterious inscription marks a turning point in its interpretation and in the study of the figure of Edvard Munch.

However, some questions – possibly – still remain unanswered:

Why is this figure screaming? Is a cry for help? It is a cry of desperation?

And who are those figures in the background? Are they just passing by, or are they his friends, judging him?

And, are we sure that the figure in the foreground is Munch? Or is it nature, screaming? Or is it both?

RESOURCES

Author Details
Luisa is an art historian and a History of Art high school teacher, with previous experience in several art institutions. She holds a BA in Art History, a first MA in Cultural Heritage Management and Curatorial Studies, and a second MA in Secondary School Teaching. She speaks English, Italian, Spanish and French, and enjoys both talking about art history and its curiosities on her Youtube channel and writing about them on the Open Art Blog.
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Luisa d'Antonio
Luisa is an art historian and a History of Art high school teacher, with previous experience in several art institutions. She holds a BA in Art History, a first MA in Cultural Heritage Management and Curatorial Studies, and a second MA in Secondary School Teaching. She speaks English, Italian, Spanish and French, and enjoys both talking about art history and its curiosities on her Youtube channel and writing about them on the Open Art Blog.

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