The Scream by Edvard Munch: analysis and meaning of the painting

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“One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch’s life was literally studded with misfortunes and family deaths. His mother died for tuberculosis when he was five, followed soon by his sister. Another sister was diagnosed with a serious mental illness, forcing her to live in a psychiatric institution, the father suffered manic-depressive disorders and his brother died a few months after getting married. Munch said: I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies,” he later wrote, “the heritage of consumption and insanity.”

There could be nothing joyful or positive in the art that Edvard Munch started to produce from his early twenties. From early age, painting had been a way to be isolated from the sadness he perceived in the family. Growing up, Munch saw in artistic expression a way to represent anguish and despair like no one else had yet done: repreenting them as the only true protagonists of life. Impressing them on canvas as the only possible content of an art that intended to look into the eyes existece and human beings’ meanings. His art was not a form of catharsis: according to Munch, in fact, nothing else existed in life.

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Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1910

The original title that Munch gave his most iconic painting was The Scream of Nature. What he explained with his words above was the origin of the two interpretative theories around this painting: it’s the human the onw who screams and the nature that writhes around its scream, or it is the nature the one screaming and the subject is overwhelmed, covering his ears for defense? Basically there is not much difference between these two visions. The desperate cry of nature involves every single thing into the same anxiety. The human being and the landscape are one only thing: the red-blooded sunset, the fjords and the human figure follow the same wavy forms, the same loss of focus, the same dissolution of reality. They share the same condition: coming out of the condition of disgrace is impossible. And each individual is alone in his own despair: the human figures in the background of the painting look in another direction, their borders are defined, they don’t participate in the protagonist’s crisis, they show total indifference. Despair exists also for them. But it’s precisely what prevents the empathy between individuals.

Behind what would soon become the painting symbol of modern human condition, there was a superior ambition: Munch’s intention was to describe the states of life through a series of works that would have to be exhibited one after the other, in what initially was named “Study for a Series: Love” and then, in 1918, it simply became The Frieze of Life. In Edvard Munch’s idea, the series had to be displayed on four dedicated walls. The first was Seeds of Love, where the origin of life draws from Christianity scenes, including Eye in Eye, The Kiss and Madonna.

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Edvard Munch, Madonna, 1894

The second wall is already about the decadence of the fruits: Flowering and Passing of Love, where the natural evolution of life leads to scenarios like Vampire, Jealousy and Melancholy.

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Edvard Munch, Vampire, 1893

On the third wall, the descent into darkness is already inexorable: Life Anxiety, the only possible dimension of human perception. This series includes Anxiety, Evening on Karl Johan and Golgotha. The Scream is the work that closes this wall.

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Edvard Munch, Golgotha, 1900

Finally, the fourth wall is dedicated to the only possible conclusion: Death. Among them are Death in the Sickroom, By the Deathbed and Metabolism.

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Edvard Munch, Metabolism, 1899

The art of Edvard Munch had several detractors while he was alive, especially at the beginning: the gap with the artistic representations of that time was too large, the twentieth century and the avant-gardes still had to arrive. Today, his paintings of suffering are often correlated with the birth of Sigmund Freud’s psychology, as a faithful description of the existential condition of the twentieth century. For most of his life there was nothing but despair, a state which was not far from Kierkegaard’s Sickness Unto Death, belonging to the previous decade. Munch eventually broke into a burn-out in 1908, and only after proper psychiatric care and his return to Norway, the colors returned to mark a positive note in his artistic production.

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Edvard Munch, The Yellow Log, 1912

In some extent, salvation arrived before death, the same death he repredented for most of his life. When death arrived in 1944, the world realized how much Edvard Munch was emotionally connected to his works: over a thousand paintings were in his possession, and were donated to the Norwegian state along with the rest of his prints, watercolors and sculptures. From there the Munch Museum of Art and the wonderful room on the National Gallery of Oslo.

From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.

Edvard Munch

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