Analysis: Edvard Munch and The Scream
Edvard Munch was a man of tribulations in almost every aspect of his personal life; however, his professional life was especially successful and innovative. He could not have grasped one without the other. Munch painted his life-experiences as if he was expressing his feelings in a diary, and looking through his work, it is obvious many of his encounters in life were rather bleak. He was extremely familiar with illness and death and received an unequal share of heartbreak. With this, he painted fervently, using color as a primary tool to create unnatural images of his feelings. He created not what was seen, but symbolized what was felt in a single moment, influencing the viewer to have knowledge and eventually possess the artist’s feelings themselves. The Scream, one of his most famous pieces, is a prime example of his life and the creativity that resulted. This recreated moment was experienced because of illness and a lifetime of angst. This paper will cover the effects Edvard Munch’s life imposed on his art, particularly The Scream.
Edvard Munch was born a sickly infant in 1863, so frail that a priest was sent for immediately to baptize him for fear he would not make it through his first few days. This infirmity followed Edvard throughout his childhood in the form of chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis. His father was Dr. Christian Munch, a military doctor with a twisted and fanatical view of Christianity. Edvard’s mother was a young, loving woman who, unfortunately, died of tuberculosis when he was only five, as did his favorite sister, Sophie, a few years later. These deaths in the family caused Dr. Munch to plunge into bouts of profound depression and vicious temper. This, combined with his fanatical religious beliefs and Edvard’s consistent illness, caused him to constantly strike fear into his children, claiming that these sufferings were God’s punishment and could only be resolved through persistent prayer and submission. Edvard is actually quoted saying,
“Sickness, insanity, and death were the dark angels standing guard at my cradle and they have followed me throughout my life.”
This upbringing undoubtedly affected him and shaped an undeniably strange individual with a dreary outlook on life.
Munch began his affair with art in 1880 in the midst of Kristiania’s bohemian circle. Within this unconventional group was a writer named Hans Jaeger, a man with ideas based on “materialist atheism and free love.” Munch was greatly influenced by this writer. He witnessed the Jaeger’s hopeless affair with the dean of the bohemian painters, and Munch even experienced his own affairs of “free love,” which greatly impacted the way he saw the relationship between love, women, and death. Jaeger also believed a man could only be free through intense self-evaluation. A man needed to dig deep for self-discovery and release himself from the constraints of his past through some kind of medium, whether it be writing or, in Munch’s case, painting.Munch was influenced to express himself on paper or canvas, confessing his feelings much in the same way a patient reveals their secret consciousness to a doctor.
Edvard eventually distanced himself from Jaeger’s eventual grasp of fantasy and egotism and moved to France in 1889 and studied at a Parisian art school where he explored the work of the French impressionists.His experience in France untied him from the restrictions of traditional art, and he began to examine new possibilities. However, the excitement of his new ventures in art was cut short by the sudden death of his father. Edvard’s depression over yet another death in his family caused him to isolate himself and reflect on his memories of his father. In his isolation, he began to ponder the thoughts of the Symbolist poet, Emanuel Goldstein, inspiring him to restructure the way he regarded art. Eventually, he discarded the ideas of Naturalism in favor of Symbolism, bringing him to the style for which he is famous. He said of his reformed art,
“I paint not what I see but what I saw.”
He acknowledged his new work as Symbolism: “nature viewed through a temperament.”
Now that there is some brief knowledge of Edvard Munch’s life, it is important to understand the nature of his mature illnesses. He developed an attraction to the guilty pleasures offered by the lifestyle of the bohemians, such as alcohol, tobacco, and, in accordance to the belief in free love, women. Eventually, he suffered a breakdown and alcohol poisoning and was diagnosed with dementia paralytica, which caused him to hear voices and act insane, but he recovered by abstaining from his previous poisons. In addition to growing up with chronic bronchitis and tuberculosis, Edvard developed agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces. He could barely cross the street and was confined to hugging the walls of the buildings when walking through town.He also had a fear of beds, suffered insomnia, developed pneumonia, took up residence in sanatoriums, and, without surprise, endured serious attacks of depression. This is simply touching the surfaces of his maladies.
“He does not paint with his hands, but with his gestures, or rather with his instincts. He paints anguish, he paints partly the old world, partly the new hell, things from the graves of a millennium and things which erupted only yesterday, still hot and without set form.”
F.X. Salda describes perfectly how Munch painted in the quote above, but the question is, why or what brought him to paint such a picture of angst as that of The Scream? It is easy to comprehend Munch’s mindset with even a brief overview of his history, and the story behind The Scream is just one of the aftershocks of his shaky existence. Edvard describes this experience:
“I was out walking with two friends—the sun began to set—suddenly the sky turned blood red—I paused feeling exhausted and leaned on a fence—there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city—my friends walked on, and there I still stood, trembling with fear—and I sensed an endless scream passing through nature.”
What caused this moment, these feelings of exhaustion, and the illusion of a ‘scream passing through nature’? Knowing Munch was agoraphobic is helpful in answering this question. A man walking on a bridge over open water, with nothing for protection but open sky, nowhere to hide, might have possibly triggered an unpleasant reaction. He was ‘trembling with fear’ probably due to an anxiety attack caused by his fear of open spaces.
However, his phobia does not give full meaning to the painting. Looking at the image with its contrasting colors and genderless, skeletal creature, one cannot help but wonder what else was plaguing Munch that day. There are abundant shadows and dark places that are offset by the blood-red, fire-like sky, giving the painting a sense of war or conflict. Munch believed that shadows were expressive images of a ‘remembered past,’ in his case of death and disease. The shadows, or certainty of death, walking along the bridge behind the skeletal figure and the dark patches in the otherwise sunlit water may be the catalysts that brought Munch to his current state of mind, hearing the scream of nature, of his surroundings.
There is no doubt that Munch experienced great emotional and mental intensity. He was constantly feeling, constantly thinking as he put those thoughts and feelings on canvas or paper. In this concentration on life, Munch believed that the world lived and breathed also, the sky, the clouds, the land, and if all those components of nature could breathe, so could they speak. If the sky and the water were alive, then they were as other living things, maintaining a pulse, possessing blood, and having the ability to feel. This belief is represented in the power of color and motion. The sky is intensely red, waving with vibration from breath and sound, carrying that potency of life to the undulating dark water and into the mind of the smaller, more insignificant being standing on the open bridge. This being has no gender, has no intricate detail, giving it the identity of irrelevance, possibly of weakness, of having nothing to use against the power of nature and what it can bring to an individual.
Shelly Wood Cordulack writes that the skeletal figure is the symbol of ‘the scream’ that belongs to nature. However, I think that the figure represents human life being drowned out by the greater intensity and certainty of one’s surroundings, of being subject to nature, the past, and the present state of mind and being powerless to do anything to change the way things are or have been. This ‘scream through nature’ is inevitable, and the figure simply stands and covers its ears in a bleak attempt to block it out but to no avail.
The surrounding sky and the vast water never disappear and are always enormously open. A man with a fear of open spaces and a belief that nature lives and breathes around people would no doubt be sent into a bout of sudden anxiety as he walks along under the open sky next to the limitless water. This terrible fear is epitomized in The Scream.
Munch was influenced by the world surrounding him, its people, colors, and sounds. He absorbed the atmosphere around him and carried what he learned with him always, from the bohemians, the French Impressionists, a Symbolist poet, and, most importantly, his father. Although he moved on from his past, he never seemed to let it go completely and found a release for his memories through art. Munch may have had a twisted and unconventional way of expressing himself, but perhaps that is why he is remembered so well. He will always be the controversial madman with dark visions, intense results, and an unusual technique.
 F.X. Salda, The Violent Dreamer: Some Remarks on the Work of Edvard Munch, (Blackwell Publishing: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Winter, 1969), pp. 149-153), 151.
 Sue Prideaux, Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), 1.
 “Edvard Munch,” Encyclopedia of World Biography, (2nd ed. 17 vols. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2010), http//galenet.galegroup.com/servelet/BioRC.
 Reinhold Heller, “Munch, Edvard,” (In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online), http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T060294.
 Encyclopedia of World Biography.
 Encyclopedia of World Biography.
 “Edvard Munch,” International Dictionary of Art and Artists, (St. James Press, 1990, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2010), http://galenet.galegroup.com/servelet/BioRC.
 Heller, “Edvard Munch.”
 Encyclopedia of World Biography.
 Prideaux, 248.
 Prideaux, 201.
 Prideaux, 300.
 Prideaux, 197.
 Salda, 150.
 Ulrich Bischoff, Edvard Munch 1863-1944: Images of Life and Death, (Koln, Germany: Taschen GmbH, 2007), 53.
 Bischoff, 34.
 Shelley Wood Cordulack, Edvard Munch and the Physiology of Symbolism, (Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp., 2002), 29.
 Cordulack, 30.
 Cordulack, 30.
Figure 1: Edvard Munch. The Scream. 1893. Oil, Tempura, and Pastel on Cardboard. National Gallery, Oslo, Norway.
Bischoff, Urlich. Edvard Munch 1863-1944: Images of Life and Death. Koln, Germany: Taschen GmbH, 2007.
Cordulack, Shelley Wood. Edvard Munch and the Physiology of Symbolism. Rosemont Publishing and Printing Corp., 2002.
“Edvard Munch.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich: Gale, 2010. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servelet/BioRC.
“Edvard Munch.” International Dictionary of Art and Artists. St. James Press, 1990. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich: Gale, 2010. http://galenet,galegroup.com/servelet/BioRC.
Prideaux, Sue. Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.
Heller, Reinhold. “Munch, Edvard.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. http://oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T060294.
Salda, F.X. The Violent Dreamer: Some Remarks on the Work of Edvard Munch. Blackwell Publishing: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. Vol. 28. No. 2. (Winter, 1969), pp. 149-153.