“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature” – This is how Edvard Munch described an experience which inspired his painting The Scream.
The artist referred to The Scream as his soul painting. It is possible he tried to represent the suffering he experienced in his formative years as well as later in life. During childhood he experienced the deaths of his mother and older sister, which took a great toll on him. Munch’s father, a medical officer, was a nervous man with religious obsessions. “From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born” – wrote the artist. As a child Munch was often sick and was kept at home, tutored by his aunt. Moreover, there was a history of mental illness in his family. When The Scream was created, his sister Laura was a patient in a mental asylum. On one of the versions of the artwork is an inscription: “could only have been painted by a madman”.
The painting is acute in its narrative. To emphasise the emotional intensity of the scene Munch used vivid, contrasting colours such as orange and blue or red and green. The natural elements in the painting like the sky or the fjord are composed of wavy, swirling lines. This creates movement and gives the impression that the scream is actually “passing through nature” right at this moment. Contrary to this, the bridge and people in the background were painted using straight lines, indicating that they are removed from what is happening. The person in front is also wavy, suggesting that they are affected by the shriek of nature. They try to shield their ears from it and have opened their mouth in pain or terror.
The human figure in the foreground resembles a ghost. In the midst of the scream they seem to be silent. Their emotions and feelings boiling inside with no way out. In this regard, the painting might point to how despair or anxiety can deform a person’s representation of reality.
The sunset in Munch’s painting is depicted as sinister. He wrote: “I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked.” It has been suggested that what he saw was a result of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia, which led to incredible sunsets around the world. Others have theorised that during his walk the artist experienced a panic attack and has painted just that. Considering that Munch worked during the Symbolism movement in art, The Scream has been interpreted as metaphorically representing existential pain or crisis of an individual.
The Scream is regarded as the second most iconic painting in the world (the first being the Mona Lisa). It continues to be relevant because it touches upon something universal and familiar to everybody, eliciting very personal responses. The central figure expresses great anxiety and anguish. They appear to be overwhelmed by the word, as if everything was just too much and they cannot take it anymore. Throughout the last year many have shared these feelings. People are scared, unsettled, frustrated and exhausted. All of these emotions are reflected in Munch’s painting. The burden of pandemic can sometimes result in a strange physical feeling of electric tiredness, like a scream running through the body.