Der Schrei der Natur, universally known as The Scream, is an oil painting by Edvard Munch. The Norwegian artist painted The Scream in 1893 as part of the cycle The Frieze of Life—A Poem about Life, Love, and Death, where he represented the wheel of life from a partially autobiographical perspective. Besides the 1893 painting, Munch made other versions of The Scream: another oil painting, two pastels, and a lithograph stone from which several prints were reproduced.
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The Scream represents a figure shrieking on a background dominated by a dramatic sky, painted in strong colors. The painting has become one of the most iconic artworks of the modern era. It is associated with the idea of alienation and with the expression of the existentialist panic of humanity (Siopsi 237). This paper analyzes The Scream through the traditional lenses of technique and composition, offering as well insights on the psychological aspect that enriches the painting with social and sociological nuances.
The making of The Scream is deeply connected with the personal life experience of Munch and with the evolving of the European artistic movements at the turn of the twentieth century. Munch grew up in an oppressive religious environment, and his childhood was deeply marked by a series of familiar tragedies, including the death of the mother and a sister. Another sister was diagnosed with mental illness, and also the father and another brother died when he was young.
Munch himself had poor health, and he developed an obsession for sickness and insanity. It does not a surprise that some titles of other artworks of The Frieze of Life cycle are Fear, Despair, and Death in the Sickroom. Besides mirroring his life, the work of Munch reflects the artistic shifting from Impressionism and Post-impressionism to Symbolism and Expressionism, where painters aimed at expressing their inner world rather than depict neutral subjects.
The Scream was the result of an autobiographical experience: a stroll with a couple of friends in the surroundings of Oslo at sunset turned into a painful happening when the sky became red-blood and created a powerful contrast with the dark fjord. While the friend kept on walking, Munch had to stop and lean on the fence, feeling “a great scream in nature” (“The Scream, 1893” par. 3). The location depicted in the painting is a view of the Kristiania Fjord from Ekeberg, near Oslo, and it provides the perfect means for the message that Munch wanted to deliver.
The rigorous geometry of the fence and the road frames the two figures in the distance on the left side of the background. They are indistinct, without personality, and seem to melt into the scene, each taking the colors of the road and of the fjord respectively. The straight lines contrast with the other two parts of the painting, the sky and the figure in the foreground, characterized by sinuous lines.
The curved lines reflect the spread of the Art Nouveau aesthetics, inspired by the curved and irregular shapes of nature. The sky is made from long waving red and orange traits, and it dominates the composition. The rendition of the sunset is so unique that has arisen many debates on the sources that might have inspired Munch. The most accredited theory suggests that the Norwegian artist might have seen such a sunset between 1883 and 1886 when the effects of the eruption of the Krakatau volcano were visible in Northern Europe (Prata et al. 1380).
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The fluid motion of the sky continues in the shrieking figure in the foreground, the central focus of the painting: a hairless and asexual human shape-holding his head and screaming silently through a distorted face. The waves of the sky seem to resonate with the soundless scream, amplifying the dramatic effect.
Besides the personal experience of Munch, The Scream embodies the sense of a social disease that spread across Europe during the late years of the nineteenth century. In those years, the psychiatrist Siegmund Freud was exploring neurosis and psychoses, Charles Darwin questioned the traditional beliefs on the origin of humankind, and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche was destabilizing the European cultural circles (Siopsi 241). The Scream of Munch goes beyond the personal sphere, becoming the scream of humanity losing its reference points and feeling trapped and alienated in the modern age. Anticipating Expressionism, The Scream represents the attempts of expressing anxiety, fear, and even terror from the subconsciousness.
Today, The Scream is one of the most reproduced artworks ever, only second to Mona Liza. It influenced the work of other prominent artists such as Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon, the contorted screaming face has inspired popular culture broadly. Together with other coeval artworks, the painting by Munch marks the passage from the traditional idea of art as the objective representation of reality to an artist-centered approach, where art is the expression of feelings hidden in the subconscious. From a social perspective, The Scream mirrors a society where scientific progress and philosophical theory undermined traditional European beliefs. Hence, the painting represents the scream of a community that felt deprived of its roots and without a clear future to pursue.
Prata, Fred, et al. “The Sky in Edvatd Munch’s The Scream.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, vol. 99, n. 7, pp. 1378-1390.
Siopsi, Anastasia, “Aural and Visual Manifestations of the The Scream in Art, Beginning with Edvard Munch’s Der Schrei Der Natur”, New Sound. International Journal of Music, vol. 50, 2017, pp. 237-257.
“The Scream, 1893,” Nasjonalmuseet. Web.