"The Scream" by Edvard Munch—A Critical Analysis
Continuing my habit of publishing unpublished essays, here's a critical analysis of 'The Scream' by Edvard Munch. Words written in 2003, pics and headings added for the the benefit of readers in 2011. Harvard referencing used throughout. If it looks like I'm stating the obvious that's because academia demands it!
The Scream ( or The Cry as it is also known) by Edvard Munch has been the subject of much analysis since it was first displayed. As an artefact of ‘high’ culture it is seen as great work of art, while as a cultural product it has been widely referenced and reproduced.
“This is visual culture. It is not just a part of your everyday life, it is your everyday life.” (Mirzoeff, 1998: 3)
For humans, sight is our most important sense, far more developed than any other. We tend to privilege sight above other senses, which gives rise to the study of visual culture. Berger (1972) says, “Seeing comes before words…the child looks and recognises before it can speak.”
However, Welsch (2000) makes an interesting point about The Scream which diminishes the impact of this idea.
“Take Munch's painting The Scream as example. You haven't actually perceived it until you've heard a scream - an incessant scream which makes you tremble. Visual perception, in this case, must proceed through to an acoustic one.” (Welsch, 2000)
Baldwin et. al. (1999: 395, 366) explain that “Seeing is always cultured seeing…What we see is always conditioned by what we know.” In this case, Welsch’s argument can be explained as such: to understand The Scream we must first have heard the sound of an anguished scream. This essay aims to explain how culture effects how an image in seen.
Artist and production
The Scream can be analysed it terms of the context of its initial production, and the life of the artist.
Munch was born in 1863, and grew up in Norway’s capital Christiania, now called Oslo. He was the son of a military doctor, and nephew of a Norwegian historian. Munch’s early life was a tragic affair. His mother and older sister both died of tuberculosis, while the only one of his siblings to marry died soon after the event. Munch himself was frequently ill. He was encouraged to be culturally active, and he used his art to express his feelings about his experiences. He studied under Christian Krohg, Norway’s leading artist at the time, and his early influences were French Realist painters. Around 1889 he became involved with the Kristiania (as Christiania was spelled at this point) bohemians, a group of radical anarchists. Their leader, Hans Jæger, taught Munch about modernism, and encouraged him to paint about the longings and anxieties of the individual. In autumn 1889 his father died. The sadness within Munch’s life can be seen to have affected his work.
The Scream was painted using tempera and pastel on board. It depicts, at face value, one central figure who has his/her hands over their ears while two figures walk into the distance. The scenery is a sunset and a sea or river. The brush strokes cause the scene to appear to swirl, giving it a sense of motion.
The Scream is thought of as the first expressionist painting. The Web Museum (2002) defines expressionism as a “movement in fine arts that emphasized the expression of inner experience rather than solely realistic portrayal, seeking to depict not objective reality but the subjective emotions and responses that objects and events arouse in the artist.” Munch’s painting does not show a realistic visual interpretation of reality; it is an abstract image, based on his inner feelings, and attempts to convey his most intimate and terrifying feelings and emotions. Munch made a diary entry in January 1892 which is widely associated with the creation of The Scream :
“I was walking along the road with two
The sun was setting.
I felt a breath of melancholy –
Suddenly the sky turned blood-red.
I stopped, and leaned against the railing,
deathly tired –
Looking out across the flaming clouds that
hung like blood and a sword
over the blue-black fjord and town.
My friends walked on – I stood there,
trembling with fear.
And I sensed a great, infinite scream pass through nature.”
What would otherwise be a beautiful sunset if transformed into an expression of pure dread, of anguish. Munch is said to have suffered severe depressions, which would go some way to explaining the angst and horror conveyed in his art.
Munch’s portrayal of raw human emotion through art has led to him being labelled an existentialist. This would seem to correlate with Jean-Paul Sartre’s beliefs on existentialism:
“The existentialist frankly states that man is in anguish. His meaning is as follows When a man commits himself to anything, fully realising that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind - in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it.” (Sartre, 1946)
Munch, in this context, could be seen to be struggling to come to terms with his anguish, expressing it in terms of colour and shape.
An understanding of The Scream can be gained by looking at the period in history in which Munch lived and worked. The end of the 19th century was a key development period in modernist thought and existential philosophy, and the writings of Nietzsche seem to link to the work of Munch. Nietzsche (1872) believed art was born out of suffering, and any artist was a tragic character to him.
“Innermost suffering makes the mind noble. Only that deepest, slow and extended pain that burns inside of us as firewood it forces us to go down into our depths... I doubt that such a pain could ever make us feel better, but I know that it makes us deeper beings, it makes us ask more rigorous and deeper questions to ourselves... Trust in life has disappeared. Life itself has become a problem.” (Nietzsche, 1872)
The science of the time was devoted to changing all that was once certain: for the first time, people were questioning the authority of the Bible. Nietzsche famously declared that “God is dead”, summing up the sense of loss and hopelessness that many felt. Sartre shows that although this idea brings new freedom to humanity, it also brings an enormous sense of uncertainty, resulting in negative feelings:
“The existentialist...thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be a priori of God, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is that we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoyevsky said, ‘If God didn't exist, everything would be possible’. That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.” (Sartre, 1957)
Munch’s father is described as a religious man in most biographies of the artist. Perhaps it is his childhood experience of religion, and his subsequent exposure to modernist theories amongst the Kristiania bohemians, that caused conflict within him. What was once a certainty for him, such as ideas of God and heaven, were now outdated concepts to the modernists, and all that was left was the suffering and anguish of a man without hope.
The image was originally displayed in Berlin in 1893, as part of a series of six paintings then called “Study for a Series Entitled ‘Love’”. The original version of The Scream is now located in Norway’s National Gallery in Oslo. This can be seen as problematic. While art galleries are traditionally seen as a ‘natural’ environment for the display of art, they remove the art from its original context, if an original context can ever be located.
There is a long history connecting art and western capitalism. Berger (1972: 84) showed that oil paintings were used as commodities by middle and upper class traders as far back as the 1500s. An internet search for the terms ‘Munch’ and ‘Scream’ will generally produce two main types of website. A few will provide brief descriptions of the painting as a ‘cultural icon’ or ‘a great work of art’, and others feature biographies of the artist, but the vast majority of the sites at this point in time are attempting to sell reproductions of the work. This can be seen as highly indicative of the society in which we now live. Marx and Engels (1848) might place our society at a point between middle and late capitalism, since it blends reproduction and consumption as one.
However, Munch was a noted printmaker himself:
“Edvard Munch is one of the twentieth century’s greatest printmakers, and his works—particularly The Scream and Madonna—have made their way into the popular culture of our time” (www.yale.edu, 2002)
He produced etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts of many of his works himself, as well as new productions. Perhaps he decided that a reproduction of a work filled with emotion could still carry the same weight of meaning, and set about spreading his art. Whatever the reasoning, Munch’s work, particularly The Scream , is still in demand today, and even reproductions can fetch a high price. But like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers , The Scream can be bought very cheaply as a printed paper poster and displayed anywhere, for example a bedroom door or hallway, by virtually anyone, such is the availability and level of mass production.
'The Scream' in popular culture
The Scream has been frequently referenced in popular culture since the rise of postmodernism. Roland Barthes defined postmodern texts as “a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”, creating “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes 1977: 146). Barthes argued that nothing is truly original, and all texts are actually a mixture of different ideas, ‘quotations’ as Barthes puts it, taken from the culture that the author, and by association the consumer, inhabits, and placed in a new context. The following examples are used to illustrate this.
The 1996 ‘horror’ film Scream makes a clear reference to The Scream , both in its very title and in the mask worn by the killer.
“Sidney tries to lock herself in but the killer is already in the house: a knife-wielding, black-robed figure wearing a mask based on Munch’s “The Scream” . (twtd.bluemountains.net.au, 2002)
This can be seen as a somewhat superficial use of postmodernity, but a valid one all the same. Some might see it as an example of high art being subverted by low art, but this would depend entirely on the viewer’s reading of the film, which isn’t the goal of this essay. However, this use increased interest in what was already a famous image. Replicas of the mask worn by the killer in the film are mass-produced as movie memorabilia, and the image is used on various other artefacts of merchandise from the film, creating a whole section of culture which references Munch’s original image.
In Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968), the book which later became the film Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick makes a reference to the image, giving another interpretation in the process.
“At an oil painting Phil Resch halted, gazed intently. The painting showed a hairless, oppressed creature with a head like an inverted pear, its hands clapped in horror to its ears, its mouth open in a vast, soundless scream. Twisted ripples of the creature’s torment, echoes of it’s cry, flooded out into the air surrounding it; the man or woman, whichever it was, had been contained by its own howl. It had covered its ears against its own sound. The creature stood on a bridge and no one else was present; the creature screamed in isolation. Cut off by-or despite-its outcry.” (Dick, 1968)
While some statements are seemingly incorrect (despite the two other figures, the screaming figure could still be said to be alone, depending on individual interpretation) the description almost certainly is of The Scream , although probably a reproduction. Resch stops because he wishes to understand, in the same way users of art galleries stop to ponder the meanings of works. Dick seems to expect the reader to be familiar with The Scream and describes the image in such a way that, without seeing it, the reader recognises what the character Resch does not. This suggests that for the purposes of Dick’s story, The Scream is less culturally significant in the future.
Bronwyn Jones also uses the imagery of The Scream , although in an entirely different context. Speaking about globalisation, she states:
“In our millennial passage, Carson's "silent spring" could become the irony of Edvard Munch's silent scream transposed to a crowded room; all the channels are on, the airwaves are humming, and no one can hear you.” (Jones, 1997)
Jones alludes to Munch’s existential nightmare, making a comparison with the saturation of media around us, and the confusion it creates.
The Scream has maintained popularity as an image for many reasons. Some believe it to be a fine work of art from a pure ‘art history’ perspective. The range of emotions the image manages to portray in one silent scream captivates others. Whether hanging in a gallery or taped to a teenager’s bedroom door, the image is capable of producing the same effects.
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