The Scream is a proto-expressionist artwork realized by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch in 1893. It depicts a deformed human figure disturbingly screaming in a landscape with unnatural colors. Representing a universal symbol of anxiety, Munch’s iconic Scream is preserved in the National Gallery of Oslo.
What is Depicted in the Artwork?
Edvard Munch (1863- 1944) painted The Scream between Berlin (Germany) and Åsgårdsstrand (Norway) in the 1890s. The artwork reflects the painter’s psychological turmoil toward the uncertainty of the modern era. Munch’s powerful emotional charge influenced the Symbolist and Expressionist movements of the early 20th century.
The painting is simple: in the center of the composition, there is an almost human, skull-headed figure, deformed by an anguished scream. The scene takes place on a bridge near a watery landscape, probably a fjord, lake, or shoreline. The sky is achieved with brushstrokes of color blending into each other, characterized by an unnatural palette: tones of orange, yellow, red, and blue-green. Two small, faceless, barely sketched figures appear in the background. Curved lines dominate the composition creating a confusing and nightmarish atmosphere.
There are four versions of The Scream, created with different techniques: the first is a painting in oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard from 1893, preserved in the National Gallery of Art in Oslo; a pastel version from the same year is on display at the Munch Museum in Oslo; a third pastel copy from 1895 is part of a private collection; and final tempera painting, dated 1910 also is in the National Gallery of Art. A lithograph from 1895 is documented, too. The iconic The Scream has been the target of high-profile art thefts and recoveries. Stolen in 1994 from the Norwegian National Gallery, it was found many months later.
One of the two pastel versions obtained a record-breaking auction at Sotheby’s London on May 2, 2012. Norwegian business Petter Olsen sold the artwork to New York financier Leon Black for a price of nearly US$ 120 million.
The Scream draws inspiration from artist’s direct experience and finds an explanation in a passage from Munch’s diary dated January 22, 1892. In the autobiographical text written in Nice, the artist describes the feeling of terror he experienced during a walk with two friends in Ekebergåsen on the outskirts of Christiania (now Oslo):
“I was walking along the road with two friends—the sun went down—I felt a gust of melancholy—suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. My friends went on—I stood there trembling with anxiety—and I felt a vast infinite scream [tear] through nature.”
The Scream is the pictorial depiction of the panic experience described by Munch. The human being and the surrounding nature are deformed and seem to experience the same distressing state of mind. The work, dated the late 19th century, is symbolic of the collective fears at the turn of the century and the alienation of modern life, characterized by conflict and mechanical industry. In addition, The Scream also embodies the personal psychological suffering of Edvard Munch, who was reeling from numerous family tragedies. His mother and sister Sophie died of tuberculosis when he was a child while his father when he was 25; his sister Laura was interned in an asylum at the same time as the painting was completed.
The Scream is conceived as part of Munch’s cycle The Frieze of Life, a series dedicated to psychological life and existential topics, inspired by his biographical experiences. The cycle also includes other of Munch’s famous artworks, such as Madonna (1894), The Dance of Life (1899), and Death in the Sickroom (1895).
Why is the sky in The Scream painting red?
Munch narrates in his diaries that he saw a sunset with a “blood-red” sky to describe his psychological state of anguish. However, some scholars have curiously observed that impressively intense colored sunsets were occurring in Norway in the late 19th century, due to volcanic dust from the violent eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia.