Why Is This Famous?
The Silent Scream Still Heard Today
On Edvard Munch’s existential masterpiece
In our series Why Is This Famous?, we aim to answer the unanswerable: How does a work actually enter the public consciousness? (See all installments.)
There are quite a few similarities between Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893). Both have been the subject of countless parodies in pop culture. Both are surprisingly small (perhaps compared to their outsized place in the public’s imagination). Both have multiple versions; there are four “screams,” all created in oil, pastel, or both (Munch even made a lithograph stone of the painting so that he could reprint the image as many times as he’d like). And both have been involved in numerous high-profile thefts. But unlike the Mona Lisa, The Scream’s very recent thefts cannot account for its fame—Home Alone (1990) adopted the screaming figure’s iconic gesture for its movie poster before the first Scream theft, in 1994. And unlike other works we’ve covered in this series, its acclaim can’t be said to have stemmed from critics’ dissonant understandings of it. No, it seems much of The Scream’s fame comes from something more inherent and profund: its identifiable and relatable evocation of angst.
“A scream passing through nature”
Google The Scream, or look it up in a library, and you will inevitably come upon the following quote, from Munch’s diary about the painting. “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.”
Alternatively, there’s this quote, which is close enough to the first to seem apocryphal (or the other way around): “One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.”
By the time Munch painted The Scream, at the age of 28, he was already an acclaimed artist. This means that critics have been analyzing the painting and pouring over the artist’s writings since its release, in the 1890s. Many of them have fixated on establishing the literal scene Munch painted. Efforts were made to find the exact bridge depicted (if it is, in fact, a real bridge); there is an ongoing dispute about whether the “actual blood” colored sky was the result of a volcano, or even a nearby slaughterhouse; scholars have argued over whether Munch based the figure off a mummy, and, if so, if that mummy was from Peru or Italy. What is strange here is that art critics and historians usually accept that abstract works are, well, abstract, and thus critics do not need to spend time finding the precise imagery of a painting whose subject is, ultimately, the human condition.
Making sense of hazy figures
Great, enduring works of art contradict themselves—they embody seemingly antithetical declarations all in a few square inches. They demand argument and conversation. Perhaps the reason art critics have been so fixated on the precise (arguably unimportant) details of the painting is because its message and contradictions are refreshingly clear, and Munch’s prolific writings have clarified any elusive aspects of his work. Munch once wrote in a diary, “My art is self-confession. Through it, I seek to clarify my relationship to the world. This could be called egotism. However, I have always thought and felt that my art might be able to help others to clarify their own search for truth.”
Here, Munch states a central contradiction that he resolves in his work: in narcissitically portraying his own inner turmoil, he captures an anxiety that is uncomfortably familiar to a large swath of humanity. Although The Scream’s central figure seems barely human, its lack of precise age, class, religion, or gender makes it reflective of any of its viewers. The figure seems lonely, but the two figures walking behind it are just as imprecise, ghostly, and unstable. These two figures are either walking toward the central figure, to join its silent scream, or away from the figure, having just been where the central figure is. Either way, they walk along the same static path—the only straight lines in the painting show that everyone occupies the same plane in an unpredictable, woozy environment. Simultaneously, the central figure seems to be in the midst of flying into, or an extension of, the world’s sickening turmoil.
Art historians often have difficulty placing The Scream within the established timeline of art history. While the painting is often used as a prime example of Expressionism, which emphasized the confusion of humanity’s place within a rapidly industrializing and war-declaring world, it predates the category by about 10 years. The Scream is perhaps best contextualized by the writings of Munch’s contemporary, Friedrich Nietzsche, who diagnosed that “God is dead” in the wake of scientific breakthrough, creating nihilism, a void of ethics and values, and the all-too-familiar existential crisis we witness in Munch’s masterpiece. Perhaps we owe the painting’s fame to the very fact that this dilemma is still with us today; in fact, some might say it’s only become more present.