Munch Paints

Edvard Munch, a Norwegian painter and printmaker who was one of the most influential expressionists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, created his masterpiece, The Scream, considered the artistic epitome of existential angst. The painting, which also depicts Munch’s own feelings of social anguish and alienation, is one of the most recognizable works of modern art.

Summary of Event

Norwegian artist Edvard Munch had introduced feeling into painting with his masterpiece The Scream (1893). Other artists, such as Paul Gauguin, also professed a desire to incorporate feeling into their paintings, but Munch was interested in feelings induced by situations of anxiety, strain, or distress. He dealt with the individual confronted with dilemmas, the individual involved in situations over which he or she had no control, the individual who felt or sensed that the world was a strange and alien place. Munch, Edvard
Scream, The (Munch)
Expressionism;Edvard Munch[Munch]
[kw]Munch Paints The Scream (1893)
[kw]Paints The Scream, Munch (1893)
[kw]Scream, Munch Paints The (1893)
Munch, Edvard
Scream, The (Munch)
Expressionism;Edvard Munch[Munch]
[g]Norway;1893: Munch Paints The Scream[5840]
[g]Scandinavia;1893: Munch Paints The Scream[5840]
[c]Art;1893: Munch Paints The Scream[5840]
Jaeger, Hans
Krohg, Christian
Kierkegaard, Søren
Przybyszewski, Stanisław
Ibsen, Henrik
Strindberg, August

Munch had parallel interests with many of his friends, who also were leading writers and intellectuals of the day. Hans Jaeger, Stanisław Przybyszewski, August Strindberg, and Henrik Ibsen shared with Munch certain life attitudes, social concerns, and psychological insights. Munch had produced paintings that rivaled the theater and the novel, and his works were comparable to some of the strongest literary productions at the end of the nineteenth century.

As a young artist from a conservative, middle-class family headed by a strict and deeply religious father, Munch came into contact with members of a Bohemian and radical avant-garde circle in Kristiania (Oslo). The circle members’ way of life and vehement criticism of the prevailing social order were in acute contrast with anything Munch had ever known. Two significant influences on Munch at that time were well-known painter Christian Krohg Krohg, Christian , who became his teacher and mentor, and Hans Jaeger Jaeger, Hans , an anarchist Anarchism;in Norway[Norway] writer whose advocacy in his novels of free love led to his banishment from Norway. For Munch, life in bohemian Kristiania included his own unhappy affairs with several women and many encounters with death in his immediate family.

In 1885, Munch had spent several weeks in Paris, where he was influenced by both Impressionism Impressionism;and Edvard Munch[Munch] and post-Impressionism. A state grant had enabled him to return to Paris in 1889, but by then he had been drawn to the strongly Symbolist Symbolist movement cultural atmosphere of Parisian theater and literature and the works of Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine Verlaine, Paul , and Joris-Karl Huysmans Huysmans, Joris-Karl , among others. He also renewed his friendship with Jaeger, now living in Paris. It was at that time, also, that Munch had declared in a journal entry that he would no longer paint interiors with people reading or knitting but would instead create “living” people who breathe and feel and suffer and love.

With this declaration, he had conceived the idea for his “Frieze of Life,” a series of paintings and prints that dealt with ordinary people and the crises they continually confront, especially those of sickness, anxiety, love, and death. The series had been patterned after the great painting cycles of the past that recorded the life of Jesus Christ Jesus Christ
[p]Jesus Christ;paintings of , the Virgin, or the saints. Much like Vincent van Gogh Gogh, Vincent van , Munch, too, endured great personal suffering and sought to transform himself through art; the anguish of others became a metaphor of his own anguish.

The best known of all Munch’s work in the Frieze of Life is The Scream, which he began in late 1893. Munch had described this scene in a journal entry of January, 1892, relating that, as he walked along a road with two friends, he felt a tinge of melancholy as the sun was setting. Then, suddenly, the sky had become a bloody red. Feeling tired, he stopped and leaned against a railing, looking at the flaming clouds hanging like blood and a sword over the blue-black fjord and the city. His friends had walked on but he stood still, trembling with fright; he then felt a loud, unending scream piercing nature.

In The Scream, one sees a figure (likely the artist) transposed by his feelings by screaming, in such a way that even the gender of the figure is indeterminate. With the figure, the artist projects a particular body image. He sets up certain rhythms of consciousness that are carried over into the environment, swirling along the fjord, as if nature and the figure had impregnated each other, leading to a resonance shared by both nature and the figure.

One of the most dramatic aspects of the painting is the sky, with the blood-red clouds that, like tongues of fire, bite into the yellow background. This depiction of clouds had its source in a meteorological phenomenon that occurs in late autumn on the shores of Oslo Fjord. During early evenings after a rainstorm, the setting sun creates a stunning visual effect, such as had been depicted by Munch in his painting. Still, Munch’s profound experience of the moment has not been refuted. (Some scholars have suggested the unique atmospheric effects of the 1883 eruption of the Indonesian volcano Krakatoa might have influenced Munch’s heightened experience of the weather in Norway at that time.)

Several scholars have pointed out that until Émile Durkheim’s Le Suicide: Étude de sociologie(1897; Suicide: A Study in Sociology, 1951) proved otherwise, the sunset hour was believed to be the most common time for suicides. Because Munch, in some of his journal entries, described his own suicidal ideation, it would seem that the painting indeed reflects Munch’s own personal angst at that moment. Moreover, Munch stated that, at the time he heard the scream in nature, he suffered from a fear of open places or spaces and a fear of heights.

Søren Kierkegaard, Kierkegaard, Søren in his Begrebet Angest (1844; The Concept of Dread, 1944) had described the fear of heights as evidence of anxiety that, when combined with fear of open places or spaces, becomes symptomatic of a greater anxiety—the fear of death. A story in Norwegian literature relates the tale of travelers who hear a cry in a desolate landscape. Later in the story, the travelers are told that once a year in this part of the world a cry is heard: the cry of the world.

Munch could link what was “inside” the figure with what was “outside” the figure through his choice of color and through a confluence of certain painted rhythms and movements. Like Van Gogh, he preserved the expressive possibility of space, so that the painting shows an interesting synthesis of a pronounced “surfaceness,” which is the result of drawing and the application of flat color, and the calculated use of fleeting orthogonals, which increase the velocity of seeing into the painting. Impressionism Impressionism;and Edvard Munch[Munch] had eliminated deep space in painting.

The coincidence of subject and nature in Munch’s work also differs from the Impressionist approach. When an Impressionist confronts nature, he or she will develop a mood conditioned by pleasurable experiences. There are no Impressionist paintings that are the result of distressing moods. The Impressionist is congenial to those conditions in nature that produce reverie, or joyful, thoughtful, pleasurable moods. Essentially, however, the Impressionist is responding to conditions outside of himself or herself. Contrarily, Munch saw nature through the eyes of a mood, always selecting moments in nature that are coincident with moods of depression, anxiety, or death.


Edvard Munch’s The Scream remains the ultimate crystallization of humanity’s existential angst, a pioneering depiction of Munch’s own torment that laid the foundation for the expressionist movement in Europe. Other artists of the period had been trying to evoke personal anguish through their own work, but none, perhaps, could do so with the precision and simplicity, yet directness, of Munch. The Scream’s colors and “moving” brush strokes show nothing less than the screaming figure’s inner turmoil, and Munch’s painting leaves one with a gut feeling that the artist indeed had something to relate.

In 1892, Munch had received an invitation for a one-person show from the Association of Berlin Artists, introducing a new, significant phase of his life. Although this exhibition in Berlin caused a scandal among traditionalists, and was, therefore, closed after a week, he nevertheless found support from younger artists in Berlin and was soon recognized in Germany and central Europe as one of the creators of a new style.

German expressionism German Expressionism would come into being in Germany and Austria around 1900 and persist until the beginning of the Weimar Republic (c. 1920-1921). Responding to Munch’s influence, German expressionists looked upon the work of art as the bearer or carrier of very intense feelings that the artist and his or her viewers had about the world. Expressionists believed that expressionism should be a kind of inner process, based upon intuition and on the ecstatic.

Like all movements, however, expressionism had its contradictions, its seeming inconsistencies, and its plurality of sources. Within German expressionism, there were two distinct groups: Die Brücke (The Bridge) and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Of the two groups, The Bridge was most greatly influenced by Munch’s work. The Bridge artists preserved the motif; they were not interested in abstraction or in formal theorizing about art. The motif was essential to them as a metaphor that could express their emotional and spiritual experiences as well as their worldview, which looked upon the world as potentially a hostile and dangerous place. Like Munch, they focused upon basically unpleasant subjects and those difficult moments in human existence.

Further Reading

  • Heller, Reinhold. Edvard Munch: The Scream. New York: Viking Press, 1973. The most complete analysis of this work, both in terms of meaning and technique.
  • Hodin, Paul. Edvard Munch. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985. A scholarly analysis covering all of Munch’s work, with 160 plates discussed in depth.
  • Munch, Edvard. The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. English translation of Munch’s private diaries. Spans the period from the 1880’s to the 1930’s.
  • Prideaux, Sue. Edvard Munch: Behind “The Scream.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2005. A comprehensive biography of Munch, with chapters exploring his life and world before, during, and after his painting The Scream. Includes maps and illustrations, some in color.
  • Schroeder, Klaus, ed. Edvard Munch: Theme and Variation. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2003. Essays by well-known scholars provide an expansive analysis of the development of theme and variation in Munch’s work.

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Scream, The (Munch)
Expressionism;Edvard Munch[Munch]