Edvard Munch’s story behind “The Scream”

The+Scream+by+Edvard+Munch.+Photo+by+The+Munch+Museum%2C+Oslo

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch. Photo by The Munch Museum, Oslo

Moy Zhong

Many people know of the iconic expressionist painting, The Scream, and it’s blazing hues of orange contrasting the dark aura of the scene. Even so, many are unaware of the dark autobiographical experience depicted within the art, as well as the psychological struggles Munch faced in real life.

"The Scream" by Edvard Munch (1893). Photo by EdvardMunch.org
“The Scream” by Edvard Munch (1893). Photo by EdvardMunch.org

"The Scream" by Edvard Munch. Photo by The Munch Museum, Oslo
“The Scream” by Edvard Munch (1893). Photo by The Munch Museum, Oslo

This photo provided by Sotheby's shows "The Scream" by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. The work, which dates from 1895 and is one of four versions of the composition, will lead Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York on May 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Sotheby's)
“The Scream” by Edvard Munch (1895). Photo by Sotheby’s New York 2012

"The Scream" by Edvard Munch (1910). Photo by The Munch Museum.
“The Scream” by Edvard Munch (1910). Photo by The Munch Museum, Oslo

 
 
 
 
 
 
First off, The Scream is not just a singular painting, but a series of four, (and several other recreations with the purpose of being sold), each depicting the same scene experienced by Munch during his childhood. Munch describes the story in a handwritten poem that was a companion to his final version, the tempera on board. The poem describes a “vision” or “breakdown” of sorts that he experienced during a walk with two companions:
“I was walking along the road with two Friends / the Sun was setting – The Sky turned a bloody red / And I felt a whiff of Melancholy – I stood / Still, deathly tired – over the blue-black / Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire / My Friends walked on – I remained behind / – shivering with Anxiety – I felt the great Scream in Nature – EM.”
Photo of Edvard Munch. Photo by EdvardMunch.org
Photo of Edvard Munch. Photo by EdvardMunch.org

The two friends are seen in each of the paintings as black figures in the back in the midst of “walking on”, just as Munch had described; and the “bloody red” sky is depicted, just as Munch described. However, Munch himself, supposedly the figure in the foreground, has been strangely distorted. The silhouette has been liquified, looking nothing like the artist himself. The ambiguous, pale and twisted face with smothered features blends in with the vivid streaks blazing in with the sky, validating the description of a “meltdown”. The piece conveys the anxiety and “on-edge” feeling expressed by Munch before.
When elaborating upon the issue, Munch stated that during the time of the scene the “air turned to blood” and the “faces of [his] comrades became a garish yellow-white.” However this mental anguish also corresponds with Munch’s state of mind at the time. Theories of The Scream’s meaning have lead trails to the topic of suicide, with reports of Munch struggling with his own issues at the time the first The Scream was conceived in 1893, including being broke, struggling with a recent failed love affair and the fear of developing mental issues that ran through his family line. During that same time he was producing an exhibition for 1902, including The Scream as well as the  artworks Melancholy, Jealousy, Despair, Anxiety and Death in the Sickroom.
(It should be noted that the bridge in the background of Despair and Anxiety share a resemblance to the ones featured in all of The Screams, enhancing the feeling of said named emotions in the piece.)
Furthermore, the location of the painting, presumably on a bridge, suggests an area popular for jumper suicides. It has also been theorized that the bridge sat within earshot of a slaughterhouse as well as an insane asylum where Munch’s sister, Laura who suffered from schizophrenia, was being treated.
"Melancholy" by Edvard Munch (1894). Photo by EdvardMunch.org
“Melancholy” by Edvard Munch (1894). Photo by EdvardMunch.org

"Jealousy" by Edvard Munch (1895). Photo by EdvardMunch.org
“Jealousy” by Edvard Munch (1895). Photo by EdvardMunch.org

"Despair" by Edvard Munch (1892). Photo by The Munch Museum
“Despair” by Edvard Munch (1892). Photo by The Munch Museum, Oslo

"Anxiety" by Edvard Munch (1894). Photo by EdvardMunch.org
“Anxiety” by Edvard Munch (1894). Photo by EdvardMunch.org

 
 
 
 
 
Munch’s family history was littered with psychological troubles and suffering. He was in constant fear of contracting the same fate, but his chances of experiencing his own mental illness heightened after witnessing the death of his mother from tuberculosis in 1868, when Munch was only five. His widowed father, who suffered from mental illness, raised Munch and his siblings through impounding fears of hell and other deep seated issues. These cases of tragedy along with others set Munch on the path of creating deep melancholic pieces such as The Scream and many others to come.
Sadly, though, much of Munch’s work was reliant on his tragic experiences. Many of his works depict scenes of death, terror and loneliness, seen in the sharp contrast between lines and hues, dark and somber colors and exaggerated shapes seen in a majority of his art. It has been speculated that two of his pieces, By the Death Bed and Death in the Sickroom, feature the death of his mother, his sister Sophia, or Munch himself, in which his mother and sister were victims of tuberculosis with Munch as the lone survivor. His various versions of his painting, The Sick Child, however, are surely images of his sister Sophia.
 
"Death in the Sickroom" by Edvard Munch (1895). Photo by EdvardMunch.org
“Death in the Sickroom” by Edvard Munch (1895). Photo by EdvardMunch.org

"By the Death Bed" by Edvard Munch (1895). Photo by EdvardMunch.org
“By the Death Bed” by Edvard Munch (1895). Photo by EdvardMunch.org

"The Sick Child" by Edvard Munch (1885). Photo by EdvardMunch.org
“The Sick Child” by Edvard Munch (1885). Photo by EdvardMunch.org

 
 
 
 
 
 
Munch himself has acknowledged the symbiotic relationship between his sorrow and his art, once writing: “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness…Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder…My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”
Things weren’t all that bad for Munch, though. In 1908, he had a revelation after checking himself into a private sanitarium, an establishment for those suffering from chronic illness, on the outskirts of Copenhagen. Previously Munch had been suffering from alcohol abuse, began hearing hallucinatory voices and suffered from paralysis on his left side. The visit rejuvenated his spirits by reducing his drinking and stabilized his sanity. As of 1909, the melancholic undertones of his murals took a turn for a more optimistic tone, especially seen in his masterpiece, The Sun.
"The Sun" by Edvard Munch (1909). Photo by EdvardMunch.org
“The Sun” by Edvard Munch (1909). Photo by EdvardMunch.org

Munch’s story ends with the artist living in isolation , out of choice, on an estate in the outskirts of Oslo, Norway. As all things were in Munch’s life, there were repercussions that came with his fame and fortune in 1909. The change in reciprocation from the public was a bit of a culture shock, leading to Munch’s withdrawal. Munch alternatively defended his isolation from saying it was necessary to complete his work and other times to maintain his sanity.
Whatever the initial reason may be, Munch in his new life was able to support the remaining members of his family and continue life with his “children,” whom he called his paintings.
During his reclusion Munch recorded his time alone through self-portraits and documentations. One of his final paintings, Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, which dates from 1940-1943, not long before his death, depicts Munch as a calm and older man in between a clock and a bed, two symbols of death. He stands on the threshold between life and demise, with life seeming to represent the bright orange wall behind him with an array of his paintings, his life. It is as if Munch, in the end, seemed content with his life and was ready to put it behind him, just as the wall is in the painting. In the end, Despite all the horrors of his childhood, in the end they just resulted in a satisfactory life spent caring for his “children”.
Munch’s art, throughout the years, have always ended with a symbolic moral and a lasting impact left within all viewers. Hence, why Munch has been heavily associated with the symbolist movement; focusing on the lasting reflection of art rather than the externalportrayal, a motif Munch has never betrayed.
"Self Portrait. Between the clock and the bed" by Edvard Munch. Photo by The Munch Museum
“Self Portrait. Between the clock and the bed” by Edvard Munch. Photo by The Munch Museum, Oslo

From The Scream to The Sun to Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, Munch’s emotion displayed through the art’s haphazard streaks and blazing colors have always left onlookers in awe at the moral in his murals. Munch himself realized this, and had been determined to deliver his angst, joy  and emotion through each painting he made. Even today, his paintings continue to be an enigma in the art world as his works. Namely several versions of The Scream have been stolen on numerous occasions making humanity wonder why they’ve connected so heavily to Munch’s masterpieces and their meanings. Either way, the mystery of Munch’s legacy will continue on for generations to come as his vivid imagery leaves the world wondering about the mind behind the masterpiece.