Art Through Time: A Global View
Dreams and Visions Art: The Scream
The Scream is perhaps the most famous painting by the most famous Norwegian artist.
Many of Edvard Munch’s images from the 1880s and 1890s are dark and unsettling. Sickness and death were common themes in his work. Munch rejected naturalistic detail in favor of an expressive style that heightens the emotional power of his pictures. Although Munch, who exhibited widely in Germany, was influential to subsequent generations of German Expressionist painters, the unconventional style of his paintings excited public scandal more than once during his career.
The Scream is part of a series known as “The Frieze of Life,” which depicts highly charged, affective moments related to themes of life, mysticism, love, and death. Described by Olso’s Munch Museum as “the actual mental image of the existential angst of civilized man,” The Scream is dominated by feelings of anxiety and alienation that were often associated with modern life at the turn of the century. In one of several attempts to describe the motif in prose, Munch wrote:
“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 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 endless scream passing through nature.”
In the painting, the central figure is abstracted and barely human, reduced down to the essence of acute anguish. The two smaller figures in the back left are sketched quite loosely, but still appear more completely human. The artist’s active and dynamic use of curving lines and strong colors give the composition an intense energy. What The Scream portrays is not a dream, but a nightmare.
Natasha Staller, Professor of the History of Art, Amherst College
“All of art carries the deepest human emotions and sense of possibility and dreams and sometimes nightmares too. And that’s why it’s able to move us, over cultures and over centuries. And with Munch, there is very deeply a sense of someone struggling, a life and death struggle within their demons. It’s very, very much a sense of his own losing loved ones, terror of sickness and death—strident cacophonous colors, these shooting lines going backward in The Scream, fighting off against these wild, undulating curves on fire in the sky. I see that as a very personal grappling with the nightmare.”
Berman, Patricia, Reinhold Heller, Elizabeth Prelinger, and Tina Yarborough. Edvard Munch: The Modern Life of the Soul. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2006.
Clarke, Jay A. Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety, and Myth.Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2009.
Cross, Elizabeth. Edvard Munch: The Frieze of Life. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2006.
Munch Museum Web site. http://www.munch.museum.no.
Prideaux, Sue. Edvard Munch: Behind The Scream. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.