Munch, Different versions of The Scream

The Scream is the name given to a series of four artworks created by the Norwegian Expressionist Edvard Munch between 1893 and 1910. They showcase an ambiguous and genderless figure’s reaction to a flaming sunset.

As an Expressionist, Munch’s work focused on conveying the emotional experience to his viewers. In ‘The Scream’, he did so by merging organic and geometric bold lines together in a way that draws the viewer’s attention and locks it inside the painting. He highlighted his lines through the use of complementary colours like blue and orange. The strokes of his brush escort the viewer’s attention from the bottom fense of the bridge up to the meandering skies and finally down to the cold waves of the lake towards the figure. In his own genius, Munch managed to do this in the most soothing way that stayed true to nature’s horrific shriek.

One may marvel at the artist’s peculiar depiction of nature’s most romanticised phenomena and wonder what reason lead Munch to portray it that way. And throughout the years, many have attempted to analyze and interpret this famous work. Lucile Lloyd, an American muralist and decorator gave historical context to the figure in ‘The Scream’ and suggested it personified the changes happening in the Western world at the time, when she said:

“It presents man cut loose from all the certainties that had comforted him up until that point in the 19th Century: there is no God now, no tradition, no habits or customs – just poor man in a moment of existential crisis, facing a universe he doesn’t understand and can only relate to in a feeling of panic.”

While other theorists look at Munch’s “soul painting” in a more psychological approach and see in it as a glimpse into the artist’s anxiety. In his diary, Munch wrote the following describing ‘The Scream’:

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.

These theorists interpreted the way Munch described his friends walking on and abandoning him with his physical and psychological exhaustion as evidence of him having a panic attack. If true, it can be suggested that Munch’s panic attack was caused by two logistical reasons. The first being the closeness of the bridge to the mental asylum where Munch’s sister had been hospitalized at the time. And the other being the closeness of the location to a slaughterhouse in view. The animals’ screams could even represent what Munch called in his diary the “infinite scream of nature”.

The Scream was preceded and followed by two very interesting paintings of the same dark mood. In 1892 Munch created ‘Sick mood at sunset: Despair’, where he portrayed a man in a hat facing the mountainous landscape with recurring elements from ‘The Scream’ in view, including the bridge where the figure is standing and the monstrous sunset in the background. Whereas ‘Anxiety’ from 1894 depicts a group of blurry-faced figures in formal dress standing on the same bridge and breaking the fourth wall by staring directly at the viewers.

From this chronological order historians could study the artist’s evolution in perception and perspective. Beginning with a single identifiable figure of a man staring into the sunset, Munch then moved to depicting an unidentified and sexually ambiguous amoeba-like figure screaming at the viewers. Then finally Munch put a diverse group of people in that same setting to reaffirm how anxiety and mental illnesses can affect everyone, despite their gender, age or race.

Munch, Anxiety, oil on canvas, 94 x 74 cm, 1894 (left)
Munch, The Scream, oil, tempera, pastel and crayon on cardboard, 91 x 73.5 cm, 1893 (center)
Munch, Sick Mood at Sunset,Despair, oil on canvas,92 × 67 cm, 1892 (right)

In the end, it is not what Munch felt that made his work some of the most recognizable in the world, it is how his work made others feel. How ‘The Scream’ allowed people to relate to its ambiguous figure is what made it gain widespread attention. When one sees “The Scream” one experiences something special, and finds solace and peace of mind in its lines and colors.