You don’t often hear someone just having a good scream for the sake of it. Quite often you see it in films, where someone is so frustrated that they stand there screaming, or they run under a railway bridge and as the train goes over they let out an exuberant scream which fills them with exhilaration and rejuvenates them, but rarely do I stand up in the office I work in and have a good scream for the hell of it…no matter how much I want to. It’s not really socially acceptable. So why is Munch’s figure so blatantly stood on the bridge with an almost apocalyptic scene going on around it while two people stroll off in the distance?
When Munch originally created ‘The Scream’ it had been intended to be called “The Scream of Nature”, not that it makes this much easier to understand. Created in 1893, this was actually one of four ‘Screams’ produced. Two were painted and the other two in pastels, each varies in colour, but all were produced on cardboard. Later Munch would create the image on a lithograph stone so that it could be printed at will and distributed easily.
To understand the painting, you need to have an understanding that Munch suffered from anxiety and the neuroses is apparent in this, but he has manage to portray the anxiety in a beautiful way. Munch had a breakdown in 1908, which had been compounded by heavy drinking and brawling, he was subject to hallucinations and feelings of persecution and ended up in a clinic. Munch stayed here to stabilise his personality, and you can see the difference in his artistic style between the period before his break down and the years after. Before the breakdown big blocks of dark colours were used to create his work, with heavy brush stroke, where as after the breakdown the colours became much lighter with softer brush strokes and happier subjects.
I really find it fascinating how the anxiety of the artist is so easy see in his work, but what are we actually looking at when looking at this picture? In the foreground a genderless and timeless figure stands with the over exaggerated facial expression of a scream (although personally I always think that it looks a bit like surprise). Behind the figure a fiery sky, and a fjord (I’m guessing it’s a fjord as Munch was Norwegian), seems to merge the water and land. In the distance of the walk way, two shadowy figures are walking. The use of the heavy block colours makes for a dramatic backdrop to the almost characterised scream.
The sky in this painting has been debated a lot, and it seems that this picture was inspired by an actual evening in Munch’s life as he wrote in his diary on 22nd January 1892:-
‘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 fjord and the city, my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety, and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.’
It has been debated that the reddish sky could have been caused by the eruption of Krakatoa, which turned evening skies red for parts of the Western Hemisphere for months during 1883 and 1884, but this was almost 8 years before Munch wrote his diary entry. This has therefore brought that theory in to dispute amongst scholar, who have then argued that much was an expressive artist and painted his emotions rather that reality therefore he was not interested in literally renditions of the colour of the sky. There is a third theory which is the location of the spot that the picture is painted of, it is between a lunatic asylum and a slaughter house, which could have lead to the inspiration for the colour of the sky. No matter how you feel the colouring of the sky came about, the unnaturalness is particularly striking, creating a metaphor for the central figures despair.
The central figure has the markings of a recurring theme for Munch with its skull like features and hollow eyes, it’s another reflection of his anxieties and fears of loneliness, rejection and despair. I do find it interesting that the two figures, which I will assume are the central figures friends, if we take Munch’s diary except as the inspiration, that while the figure screams they just move on. This seems like another direct correlation between the anxiety and feelings of rejection.
The passion that is reflected in this, and other works by Munch have his marked as the forerunner of expressionism.
Whether you knew a lot about this picture or not, I’m pretty sure you have all seen it before as it is one of the most bastardised paintings around. Even Rick and Morty have made it to get their own version of the scream…