On Edvard Munch and The Scream

Edvard Munch Essay
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Edvard Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream. Image by Perlinator from Pixabay

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It is time for another essay on art, and this time the subject of the essay is none other than the great Edvard Munch and his most famous painting, The Scream.

Now, I am aware that probably not many have heard of Edvard Munch or The Scream. This is mostly because Munch never really achieved the fame or notoriety that some other well-known artists such as Picasso or Matisse or Michelangelo or da Vinci were fortunate to have achieved. In short, he never was and still is not a household name like the abovementioned artists.

However, most of us have no doubt, on some occasion or the other, come across one of his paintings, either directly or indirectly through popular culture references. This famous painting I am talking about is The Scream, which was made in 1893, and has gone on to become one of the most iconic images and artworks of Western art.

But we will cover the significance of the painting later on in the essay. First, allow me to introduce you to Edvard Munch and his life.

Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter, who was born on 12th December 1863 in the village of Ådalsbruk in Løten municipality in Innlandet county, Norway, to Christian Munch and Laura Catherine Bjølstad.

Munch’s father, Christian, was a medical officer and doctor. Munch had an elder sister and three younger siblings. His mother was said to be inclined toward art and she encouraged her children to paint and draw.

The Munch family had notable relatives in historian Peter Andreas Munch and military officer and painter Jacob Edvardsson Munch, who was one of the founders of the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania, an art school that Munch would eventually join.

Sadly, in 1868, when Munch was barely 5 years old, his mother died of tuberculosis. After the death of his mother, Munch, and his siblings were raised by their father and their aunt Karen.

A sickly child, Edvard Munch was often unwell during the winter months and was compelled to stay out of school and remain at home. Due to his recurring illnesses, his aunt and some of his schoolmates began to tutor him at home when he was unable to go to school. His father also joined in his homeschooling, introducing him to history and literature, especially the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

While confined at home during his frequent bouts of illness, Edvard Munch often spent his time drawing and listening to his father entertain him and his siblings with Poe’s ghost stories.

His father’s position as a medical officer in the military did not really pay much, and the family often struggled to make ends meet due to their poor financial situation. His father tried to establish a private practice simultaneously but failed.

Due to their terrible financial state, the family was forced to move frequently into cheaper and cheaper flats. These early experiences of dealing with poverty influenced many of Munch’s early drawings and watercolors, in which he depicts the interiors and objects such as medicine bottles that were found in their house.

Even though Munch’s father did all he could to support and raise his five children, everything was not so perfect in the Munch household.

Munch would later mention how his father’s overly religious and temperamentally nervous nature affected all the children in adverse and detrimental ways. Munch later said that his father was religious to the point of psychoneurosis and that his father’s religious outlook on life was oppressive.

Munch would also go on to claim that he and his siblings inherited the seeds of madness from his father, resulting in the siblings suffering from some form of insanity or mental illness throughout their lives.

Munch’s poor health, the ghost stories of Poe, and the oppressive religious environment at home all combined to form the nightmares and macabre visions that Edvard Munch began experiencing as a boy. He constantly felt fear and sorrow, and he always had a strong feeling of death catching up to him.

All this resulted in a difficult and fear-filled childhood for Munch.

To make matters worse, in 1877, when Munch was 13 years old, his older sister, Sophie, to whom he was closest, died. And his younger sister Laura Catherine was diagnosed to be mentally ill at a very young age.

By the time he was 13 years old, Edvard Munch was already deeply interested in art. After being influenced by the Norwegian landscape artists at an art exhibition at the newly-established Art Association, he began to make oil paintings to try to recreate the landscapes he saw.

Although he wanted to become a painter, he succumbed to his father’s wishes and enrolled at a technical college in 1879 to study engineering. Here he learned perspective and scaled drawing and excelled at Mathematics, physics, and chemistry. However, he continued to suffer from frequent bouts of illnesses that disrupted his studies.

A year later, Edvard Munch finally resolved to abandon engineering and left college in order to become a painter.

Needless to say, his father did not approve of his decision to become a painter and was disappointed in him. His father considered art to be an unholy trade, and even his neighbors and relatives discouraged him from pursuing art as a career.

But Munch was resolute in his decision and had a clear goal in pursuing art, which he wrote down in his diary: In my art, I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.

Further to his decision of becoming an artist, Edvard Munch enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania in 1881, when he was around 18 years old. One of the founders of the school was his relative Jacob Munch, who was also a painter.

At the school, Munch studied under illustrious Norwegian artists such as Christian Krohg and Julius Olavus Middelthun and learned the art of figure and portrait painting.

In 1883, barely two years after joining the school, Munch participated in his first public exhibition, sharing a studio with his fellow students. He became greatly influenced by the Impressionist and Naturalist movements in these early years of his development as an artist.

Many of his early works resembled the works of Édouard Manet and received several negative reviews from critics and the press. Even his father criticized his impressionist paintings, especially the nude paintings.

After a certain point, his father stopped providing him with money for his living expenses and art supplies.

During this period, Munch slowly got more and more involved in the bohemian lifestyle, mainly due to his close association with bohemian philosopher Hans Henrik Jæger. He acquired a lot of his ideas and worldview from the bohemians, most of whom were artists, writers, musicians, philosophers, etc.

Munch’s affinity for the Bohemians was another major point of disagreement between him and his father.

By the mid-1880s, Munch sought to reduce the influence of impressionism in his paintings as he began to find it restrictive, superficial, and somewhat like scientific experimentation rather than raw art. He believed impressionism prevented him from truly exploring and expressing situations with emotional and expressive themes.

On the advice of Jæger, Munch began maintaining a diary to explore his own psychological and emotional state by reflection and self-examination.

Noting down his own thoughts on a daily basis provided him with a deeper and different view of his art, which resulted in him painting The Sick Child in 1886, which was his first break from impressionism.

Sadly, except for his former tutor Krohg, he received only negative reviews on the painting from critics and relatives, including his father.

Throughout the late 1880s and early 1890s, Edvard Munch continued to experiment with his art, trying various color palettes, themes, and brushstroke techniques. His painting style was continuously changing as he became more and more influenced by the Post-Impressionists.

Munch’s paintings now dealt with more mature themes that portrayed his state of mind rather than just external reality. Two of his well-known paintings during this period include Inger on the Beach and Portrait of Hans Jæger.

In 1889, when Munch was around 26 years old, he held his first solo exhibition of almost all his artworks. Surprisingly, the exhibition was received well and gained him some minor recognition, which led to him being offered a two-year state scholarship to study in Paris under French artist Leon Joseph Florentin Bonnat.

In Paris, Munch spent his days learning under Bonnat in Bonnat’s studio and visiting galleries, exhibitions, and museums to learn from the artworks of other artists who represented modern European art.

It was during these visits that he came across the works of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, all three of whom impressed him and had a great influence on him. He was impressed by the way they used expressive colors to convey emotion.

In December of 1889, Munch’s father died, leaving the family in financial distress. Relatives refused to help and Munch was forced to take a huge loan from a Norwegian art collector after returning home from Paris.

The death of his father threw him into depression and he began having suicidal thoughts.

In 1892, Munch made his way to Berlin after being invited by the Union of Berlin Artists to hold a solo exhibition in Berlin. The exhibition attracted great controversy and was shut down within a week.

Munch was amused to see how a simple and innocent painting could create such a great stir and offend so many people.

Edvard Munch would go on to spend the next four years in Berlin, meeting and mingling with well-known artists, writers, and intellectuals such as Danish poet and painter Holger Drachmann and Swedish writer August Strindberg, both of whose portraits Munch would later paint.

During this period, Munch did not sell much of his artworks but managed to make some money by charging people fees to see his controversial paintings.

It was in Berlin that he began formulating ideas for his most ambitious series of artworks titled The Frieze of Life – A Poem about Life, Love, and Death.

However, it was during this period, sometime around the year 1892, that Edvard Munch began painting what would become not only his most famous painting but one of the most famous and iconic paintings of art history and popular culture.

It is now time to talk about Munch’s masterpiece, The Scream.

The Scream depicts an agonized or terrified face that is believed to symbolize the anxiety of the human condition and represent the universal anxiety of modern man. The painting consists of simplified forms painted with bands of garish color and depicted from a higher point of view. The agonized face of the main figure in the painting is depicted as merely a garbed skull clearly in the midst of some terrible emotional crisis.

Munch would later describe the inspiration behind the painting as follows:

I was walking along the road with two friends, the sun was setting, and 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.

The inspiration behind the unnaturally red and orange color of the sky in the painting has puzzled and intrigued critics for decades now.

Some scholars speculate that the color of the sky was inspired by the presence of nacreous clouds which occur at the latitude of Norway.

Others have suggested that it was inspired by the site’s proximity to a lunatic asylum to which his sister, Laura Catherine, was admitted, and by its proximity to a slaughterhouse nearby. The site of the painting is generally accepted to be a fjord overlooking Oslo.

Several scholars speculate that the color of the sky was due to the effects of the powerful volcanic eruption of Krakatoa, which occurred during that period. However, this explanation has been disputed by many scholars who noted that Munch was an expressive painter and not a realistic one who depicted things exactly as he saw them.

Scholars have also spent years speculating on the inspiration behind the skull-type face of the figure in the painting. American art historian Robert Rosenblum suggested that the agonized skull face was probably inspired by a Peruvian mummy that Munch must have seen at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris while he was studying under Bonnat.

The Peruvian mummy was buried in a fetal position with its hands on the side of its face and had inspired more than twenty paintings by Paul Gauguin as well.

Over the years, the imagery of the painting has been compared to the experiences of a person suffering from depersonalization disorder, which is a feeling of distortion of one’s self and one’s environment.

To this very day, The Scream remains Munch’s most famous work, considered an icon of modern art and often put in the same category as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa due to its wide popularity and iconic status in history and popular culture.

The image of the agonized skull face has been copied, imitated, referenced, and parodied numerous times over the years. The painting inspired a series of silkscreen prints by American artist Andy Warhol, as well as paintings by Icelandic artist Erró.

The skull face has also found its way into movies and television, such as the mask in the 1996 movie Scream and the appearance of the alien in the 2011 BBC series Doctor Who. It has also inspired postal stamps and musicals.

Munch made a total of four versions of The Scream, two pastels, and two paintings. An 1895 pastel-on-board version of the painting was sold for a huge sum of $120 million at an auction in 2012, thereby making it one of the most expensive works of art ever.

As regards the modernist movement, the painting would go on to have a pioneering influence on Expressionism.

Edvard Munch would dedicate several of the following years to completing his most ambitious series of paintings, Frieze of Life. The series deals with various emotional and deep themes such as the stages of life, sexual humiliation, anxiety, the hopelessness of love, jealousy, infidelity, separation in life and death, etc.

Some of the well-known paintings in this series include Madonna, Moonlight, Ashes, The Storm, Love and Pain, The Bridge, Puberty, The Sick Child, Women in Three Stages, Death in the Sickroom, Separation, Anxiety, Jealousy, and Dance of Life.

With these paintings, Munch explored and expressed his deepest and most intimate thoughts, feelings, and emotions in an attempt to examine and explain life to himself. Munch’s paintings reveal his blatantly pessimistic view of life and human existence.

The entire Frieze of Life series was exhibited for the first time at the Secessionist Exhibition in Berlin in 1902. The exhibition had its fair share of detractors, but overall it was well-received and was a success. The critics in Germany slowly began to appreciate and accept Munch’s art as good and innovative.

Munch was finally gaining the acceptance and approval from critics that had escaped him for almost two decades. The success of the exhibition got him wealthy and influential German patrons such as Max Linde, Albert Kollman, and Walther Rathenau.

Munch was surprised to see the sudden success coming his way and the fortunate turn of events after twenty long years of struggle and misery, as he later described it in his diary.

From then on, he began to earn a somewhat steady income from his art, at last making his financial situation secure and stable after twenty years of uncertainty.

He was invited to hold an exhibition in Paris as well, where the up-and-coming fauvists, including Matisse, were probably inspired by his paintings, prompting them to invite him to exhibit his works in a fauvist exhibition along with their own works. Munch accepted the offer.

Munch’s first exhibition in America took place in 1912 in New York.

However, although these positive developments were welcomed by him, Munch still remained a deeply anxious and emotionally unstable person who often fell victim to bouts of erratic and self-destructive behavior. He suffered from feelings of persecution and frequently had hallucinations. To cope with all these issues, he resorted to drinking excessively and venting his anger at others.

Munch later admitted that during this period, in spite of his newfound success, he was constantly on the verge of madness. He entered a clinic to receive therapy for his mental condition when matters got out of hand.

He came out of therapy as a somewhat different person who was more optimistic and less pessimistic about life. This state of mind was clearly reflected in his bright colorful paintings as well.

As his mental health improved, so did his career. His works began gaining more traction and attention among the general public and museums began to buy his paintings on a regular basis. Munch was slowly being recognized as a great artist.

Munch’s financial situation improved to such an extent that he was able to purchase several properties while comfortably supporting his family.

Edvard Munch spent the last twenty years of his life in relative solitude at his estate in Ekely, Skøyen in Oslo. He spent his days painting and even received several commissions to paint murals in other parts of Norway, which he occasionally accepted.

On 23rd January 1944, Edvard Munch, aged 80, died in his Ekely estate, while Norway was under Nazi rule during the Second World War.

Leaving a rich artistic legacy behind with his massive body of work, Munch’s works are now represented in major museums and galleries across the world, the most being in Norway.

The Munch Museum in Oslo holds all of Munch’s remaining works, comprised of 4,500 drawings, 1,100 paintings, and 18,000 prints. It includes the largest collection of his artworks in the world.

Through his artworks, his influence over subsequent artists, and the impact of his works on popular culture, Munch’s legacy shall continue to live on for many more centuries to come.