The Scream Explained: What’s Really Happening in Edvard Munch’s World-Famous Painting

The Scream is not scream­ing. “One of the famous in the images of art,” Edvard Munch’s most wide­ly seen paint­ing “has become, for us, a uni­ver­sal sym­bol of angst and anx­i­ety.” Munch paint­ed it in 1893, when “Europe was at the birth of the mod­ern era, and the image reflects the anx­i­eties that trou­bled the world.” How­ev­er many fin-de-siè­cle Euro­peans felt like scream­ing for one rea­son or anoth­er, the cen­tral fig­ure of The Scream isn’t one of them: “rather, it is hold­ing its hands over its ears, to block out the scream.” So gal­lerist and Youtu­ber James Payne reveals on the lat­est episode of his series Great Art Explained, which does­n’t just exam­ine Munch’s icon­ic work of art, but places it in the con­text of his career and his time.

Dur­ing most of Munch’s life, “Euro­pean cities were going through tru­ly excep­tion­al changes. Indus­tri­al­iza­tion and eco­nom­ic shifts brought fear, obses­sions, dis­eases, polit­i­cal unrest, and rad­i­cal­ism. Ques­tions were being raised about soci­ety, and the chang­ing role of man with­in it: about our psy­che, our social respon­si­bil­i­ties, and most rad­i­cal of all, about the exis­tence of God.” It was hard­ly the most suit­able time or place for the men­tal­ly trou­bled, but then, Munch seems to have pos­sessed more psy­cho­log­i­cal for­ti­tude than he let the pub­lic know. A savvy self-pro­mot­er, he under­stood the val­ue of liv­ing like some­one whose ter­ri­ble per­cep­tions keep him on the brink of total break­down.

But then, Munch nev­er did have it easy. “His moth­er and his sis­ter both died of tuber­cu­lo­sis. His father and grand­fa­ther suf­fered from depres­sion, and anoth­er sis­ter, Lau­ra, from pneu­mo­nia. His only broth­er would lat­er die of pneu­mo­nia.” He found solace in art, a pur­suit strong­ly opposed by his reli­gious father, and even­tu­al­ly joined the bohemi­an world, a milieu that encour­aged him to let his inner world shape his aes­thet­ic. Draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from the French Impres­sion­ists and the dra­ma of August Strind­berg, Munch even­tu­al­ly found his way to start­ing a cycle of paint­ings called The Frieze of Life.

It was dur­ing his work on The Frieze of Life that, accord­ing to a diary entry of Jan­u­ary 22nd, 1892, Munch found him­self walk­ing along a fjord. “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.” The fjord was on the way back from the asy­lum to which his beloved younger sis­ter had recent­ly been con­fined; Payne imag­ines that her “screams of ter­ror must have haunt­ed him as he walked away.” From these grim ori­gins, The Scream emerged to become an oft-ref­er­enced and high­ly relat­able image — even to those who see in it noth­ing more than their own frus­tra­tion at receiv­ing too much e‑mail.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Edvard Munch Sig­naled His Bohemi­an Rebel­lion with Cig­a­rettes (1895): A Video Essay

Explore 7,600 Works of Art by Edvard Munch: They’re Now Dig­i­tized and Free Online

The Life & Work of Edvard Munch, Explored by Pat­ti Smith and Char­lotte Gains­bourg

Edvard Munch’s Famous Paint­ing “The Scream” Ani­mat­ed to Pink Floyd’s Pri­mal Music

The Edvard Munch Scream Action Fig­ure

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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