Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

The Scream: The Story Behind Edvard Munch’s Haunting Masterpiece

Haunting, expressionistic and vivid, The Scream is one of the most iconic artworks ever to have been produced. With The Scream, Edvard Munch captured the anxiety of the modern man. Considered one of the earliest examples of the expressionism movement, The Scream has had an impact on popular culture that is almost unprecedented. Singulart will be examining the inspiration behind the artwork, as well as its lasting impact on pop culture.

Who was Edvard Munch?

Edvard Munch in his youth

Edvard Munch was born in Norway in 1863. His early life was plagued by tragedy; his mother died of tuberculosis when he was five years old, and his sister would later die of the same disease. Another of his sisters would be institutionalized for mental illness, and his only brother died of pneumonia at the age of 30. Munch stated that he inherited the “seeds of madness” from his father, who he described as “temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious – to the point of psychoneurosis.”

By 1879 Munch enrolled in a technical college, but dropped out after a year after his interest in art overshadowed his interest in engineering. He commenced studies at the Royal School of Art and Design in 1881, ignoring criticism from his father and neighbors. His first took part in a public exhibition in 1883, showing a portrait of Karl Jensin-Hjell, which critics derided as “impressionism carried to the extreme… a tragedy of art.”

After a visit to Paris in 1886, Munch began to break away from the realism style. This can be seen in his artwork The Sick Child, which was inspired by the death of his sister. Munch returned to France in 1889, following the death of his father. During his time in Paris he went through a productive – yet troubled – period, producing a series of paintings he called Frieze of Life.

Completed before The Scream, The Sick Child is the title given to a group of works completed by Munch after the death of his older sister Johanne Sophie from tuberculosis at age 14.
The Sick Child is the title given to a group of works completed by Munch after the death of his older sister Johanne Sophie from tuberculosis at age 14.

Although he enjoyed success following the Frieze of Life series, which included The Scream, sadly Munch was affected by his excessive drinking and unraveling mental state. He entered a private sanitarium in 1908, and although he checked out in the spring of 1909, his artistic ability never fully recovered. He lived out the remainder of his life in isolation at his Ekely estate, and died in 1944.

What is the story behind The Scream?

The most famous iteration of paintings completed in Munch's The Scream series.
The most famous iteration of paintings completed in Munch’s The Scream series.

Munch was inspired to paint The Scream after walking with two friends on January 22, 1882. In a diary entry from that day, Munch writes:

“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjörd and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”

Later, Munch would elaborate: “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.”

Critics have theorized that the redness of the sky was due to the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa, however it is argued that as an expressionist painter, Munch was not directly influenced by his surroundings. It has also been suggested that Munch’s proximity to a slaughterhouse and mental institution (where he was possibly visiting his sister Laura), near the site of the painting, had an influence on his mental state.

Detail of the Sky in The Scream
Detail of the sky in The Scream

The Scream and Munch’s Artistic Style

Munch produced four copies of The Scream: one in oil, tempera, and pastels on cardboard, two renditions in pastels, and one tempera painting. The various renditions show Munch’s commitment to experimenting with different mediums.

For an artwork with such a striking emotional impact, The Scream is relatively simple in its execution. It is comprised of three main areas: the bridge, a landscape in the distance, and the blood red sky. The components all blend into each other, swirling together to suggest a chaotic mental state. The hard lines of the bridge provide a contrast to the otherwise abstract background, and draw our attention to the two dark figures lurking in the background, who are also portrayed with straight, harsh lines.

The Scream is also a study in balance. The greys and blacks in the foreground of the picture are balanced by the rich reds and oranges in the background; likewise, the swirling motions of the sky and landscape are balanced by the linear lines of the bridge. Perhaps by contrasting these elements so vividly, Munch was suggesting the internal turmoil between sanity and madness.

The main figure in The Scream is ambiguous. While it is thought that the figure could be a self-portrait of Munch, it has also been theorized that it is portraying his sister Laura. However, by making the figure sexless and unidentifiable, Munch could be suggesting that everyone can relate to the feelings of depression and anxiety portrayed in the skull-like figure. The curvy lines of the background are continued in the body of the figure, which portrays the feeling of chaos and madness.

The Scream in Popular Culture

The Scream has had an enduring impact on pop culture. After its copyright expired in the late 20th century it was copied countless times, leading to parodies, imitations and cementing it as one of the most recognizable pieces of art ever produced.

In 1983 Andy Warhol made a series of prints featuring The Scream, claiming he intended to desecrate the image. Perhaps most recognizably, The Scream provided inspiration for the villain in Wes Craven’s 1992 film Scream. The mask the killer wears was based on the painting and created by Brigitte Slieirtein. The Scream was also appropriated by Maccauley Culkin in the poster for the 1990 film Home Alone.

 Two Andy Warhol prints of The Scream (After Munch) .
Two Andy Warhol prints of The Scream (After Munch) .

The artwork also features in Philip K. Dick’s 1968 sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. The painting is described as showing “a hairless, oppressed creature with a head like an inverted pear, its hands clapped in horror to its ears, its mouth open in a vast soundless scream.”

See contemporary artists Inspired by Edvard Munch in the exclusive Singulart collection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *