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The Scream by Edvard Munch: Analysis, meaning and interpretation of the painting

Updated on August 20, 2012

The Scream is a painting by artist Edvard Munch. It is currently the most expensive painting ever sold. In May 2012 the 1895 pastel version was sold for a record $120 million in an auction at Sothebys in New York, bought by billionaire and art connoisseur Leon Black. This post is a unique analysis and representation of the inspiration, theme and meaning of The Scream by Edvard Munch. It is up for discussion and individual interpretation in the comment box below.

The Scream by Edvard Munch is currently the most expensive painting ever sold. In May 2012 the 1895 pastel version was sold for a record $120 million in an auction at Sothebys in New York, bought by billionaire and art connoisseur Leon Black.
The Scream by Edvard Munch is currently the most expensive painting ever sold. In May 2012 the 1895 pastel version was sold for a record $120 million in an auction at Sothebys in New York, bought by billionaire and art connoisseur Leon Black. | Source

Inspiration and theme of the painting

Edvard Munch's iconic masterpiece The Scream has invited innumerable interpretations, arguments, analysis and critiques. But the painting still doesn't cease to exude its intangible yet powerfully palpable and inherent agony. The Scream turns a potentially beautiful landscape of a country town into a dreary, chilling, precarious fury of Nature. No wonder that this painting has also been referred as The Cry or The Scream of Nature before.

Experts have classified Edvard Munch's work to be rooted in German Expressionism, a movement in modern art in which artists were known to use bold brush strokes to express the condition of their inner consciousness on canvas, celluloid or through performance. Expressionism finds its beauty in being sepulchral, dark, dreary yet stunning. It impacts the mind with exaggeration, a sense of impending paranoia, urban aridity and an internal chaos.

The birth of this painting took place when the modernist philosophy was taking shape and gaining momentum. The Church was being questioned, the existence of God was being doubted, the battle of man and machine had started because of industrialization and every single notion that humans lived with, was being upturned, squashed, mocked and jutted out of its gut.

Such was the condition of Munch's mind, as he succinctly noted in his personal diary. Through his famous poem that has supposedly inspired The Scream, he describes himself walking on a bridge with his friends when the sky turns lurid and devastatingly red. He hears Nature's shrill cry that is brought upon Her by the world torn apart in shreds on the brink of modernism.

The Scream by Edvard Munch: Analysis and interpretation

The Scream is said to have lasted this long due to the use of sturdy mediums like oil, pastel and tempera on cardboard. There are many versions of The Scream that Munch has painted himself. Apart from the intensity of the colors and the type of art supplies, the only difference in other versions is in the sharpness and stance of the two men on the bridge.

1) Except for the floor of the bridge, no other element in the painting speaks of any linearity: Everything is a ripple. As if it shouts – Nature will give you what you give Her. The red and orange swirls of the sky are reminiscent of crackling flames ignited by revolution, retaliations and angst. But there's a touch of blue in the skies to serve as a reminder that mankind has the power of silencing the shuddering screams of nature if wants.

2) Edvard Munch leaves everyone confused about the condition of the elixir of human life – water: The swirls of the sky are not as dizzying as the swirls of the pool of water underneath. On one hand, the water appears stagnant, poised to thwart all chances of growth and ideation of mankind.

On the other hand, the curvature of the brush stokes representing water seem to denote that it is gradually encroaching upon all life forms. This includes the boat which seems to be on the brink of getting consumed by the infuriating power of the sea and the two men who seem to be in a melancholy state of mind.

If The Scream was to be captured in the medium of motion art or video, the strong swirls and broiling misc en scene of the work would engulf the audience in a tornado.
If The Scream was to be captured in the medium of motion art or video, the strong swirls and broiling misc en scene of the work would engulf the audience in a tornado.

3) The racy, linear and three dimensional angle of the bridge provides perspective and depth: Additionally, the bridge also clarifies the stance of the painter, if an assumption was to be made that the androgynous figure was Munch himself.

Staring at the image of The Scream can give the viewer an illusion that the bridge is like a slow moving ground escalator which is pulling Munch toward the insanity of the modern human condition. Munch's mates in the background are waiting for him to be drawn into the never ending cycle of suffering while Munch screams for rescue.

4) The boats add mystery: While some experts have seen the small spec like boat to denote the carrier of death and destruction, it could also lend itself to the interpretation that it is probably the last standing motifs of human satisfaction and joy.

It is as if the two brooding men are watching the last hope of humanity sail into the horizon and bidding their happiness goodbye, while paying Mark Twain's famous quote a tribute "Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

5) The Scream boasts of being a universal representation: In many ways, The Scream is a universal representation of modern suffering and consciousness by showing the central balloon faced character in full luridness.

The character is androgynous and ageless, free of the shackles of culture, point of view and biased perspective. It has shut itself to the world which is smothered with complexities and contradictions.

If the painting is rooted in Munch's real life experience of walking on a bridge and hearing Nature's shrill scream, then yet another story has the potential to unfold. Imagine Edvard Munch walking through a quaint town with two fellow companions. While they take some time to stand by the bridge and reflect on their life, the sky suddenly turns fiery.

Running in the opposite direction of the storm that is about to approach, balloon faced character suddenly stops in the way and protects itself from the continual cry of Nature. It finally turns back and gapes in realization.

Comparison with other works

While critiquing or reflecting Munch's style, a singularly important question that reflects the debate of art pops its head – Should all the works of an artist carry his/her signature technique or should they burst with individuality so prominent, that it is impossible to recognize the individual's style in it?

In context to this persistent debate in art, it is important to note that The Scream distinctly and effortlessly separates itself from the repertoire of Munch's other offerings. It comes close only to Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche (1906), the bush strokes and technique of which seem to be strikingly similar to that of The Scream.

Comparing The Scream even with Edvard Munch's own works is futile. Martha Tedeschi, a prominent Curator at the Art Institute of Chicago aptly notes that The Scream's achievement as a work or art is pioneering and path breaking because it conveys the universality of the meaning of the work with great brevity, almost instantaneously. The work lends itself to an effortless reading even to an ordinary viewer of art who may be most removed from context that the painting is set in.

The Scream by Edvard Munch: Reflection

So where was The Scream originally inspired from? Was it Munch's personal psychological imbalance, his existentialist angst or his conflict with the world on the brink of revolutionary modernist ideas? Many speculations have been made, but no one knows for sure.

What is evident though, is that The Scream speaks directly to every individual. It pleads an individual to pause, stop, stare, reflect and introspect the absurdity and futility of modern life.

Munch asks us to see through the peaceful blue skies to see the real boiling point that human life has reached. It's as if the balloon faced character in the painting is giving mankind a warning – Unending phantasmagoria, an immortal life, a pursuit in vain and pure horror.

If The Scream was to be captured in the medium of motion art or video, the strong swirls and broiling misc en scene of the work would engulf the audience in a tornado.


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    • Elias Zanetti profile image

      Elias Zanetti 

      6 years ago from Athens, Greece

      'The Scream' is a fascinating painting that has steered some hot debated among art historians. You provided an interesting analysis and intepretention of the painting.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Nice article. But the photo you have posted is the 1893 version, not the 1895.

    • profile image

      7 years ago

      Didn't notice the boats in the background. Good information. Talked about this painting and thought it was really interesting!

    • profile image

      Devin Kaufman 

      7 years ago

      Great article! I had to do my own analysis and interpretation on this painting for school, and I never even noticed the boat haha. You hit on every point well.


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