Edvard Munch’s The Scream is an icon of modern art, the father of the ‘Ghostface’ mask worn by antagonists of the Scream film franchise, and so much more. Painted by the Norwegian artist in 1893, The Scream represents anxiety — a common human condition, which then went on to influence the Expressionist movement. Munch created four versions of this painting — two in paint and two in pastels. The 1895 pastel-on-board version was sold at Sotheby’s for a record US$120 million at an auction in 2012. Much has already been discussed about this artwork, but it continues to startle art lovers with new information about its story.
To say that Munch expressed his inner feelings in his artwork would be an understatement. The artist’s history is well known by now: he painted for a living, never married, never had children. He was known to be extremely emotional and always seemed to be nervous. He led a cruel life and lost almost all of his family by the time he turned 32. But what inspired him to paint such a horrifying skeletal face that is screaming at the viewer? His diary entry from January 22, 1892 helps the viewer gain a bit of insight:
“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 colour shrieked. This became The Scream.”
Although the artist himself shed light on the concept of the painting, several scholars claim the unnaturally orange sky reflects the psychological reaction by Munch to his sister’s commitment at a nearby lunatic asylum. At the time of painting, the artist’s manic depressive sister Laura Catherine was a patient at the mental asylum at the foot of Ekeberg. In 1978, scholar Robert Rosenblum suggested that the strange, skeletal creature in the foreground of the painting was inspired by a Peruvian mummy, which Munch could have seen at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Several other ‘mummy’ references have popped up over the years in order to give a back story to the horrified skeletal expression.
One discovery about the painting does help refute a lot of theories. A tiny inscription of eight words written in pencil found at the upper left corner of the frame created a lot of speculation after it was first exhibited in Norway in October 1895. The words, ‘Could only have been painted by a madman‘ written in Norwegian are not quite visible to the naked eye, but do undoubtedly capture one’s interest. It was then assumed that a visitor had etched those words onto the painting. But, it was the public opinion when the painting was displayed that prompted Munch to write those eight words on his own artwork. According to curators at Norway’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Munch added the sentence to his artwork two years after it was first exhibited. They allege the handwriting matches Munch’s and it coincides with his mental state which deteriorated over time. Researchers believe the reason he called himself a ‘madman’ was because he felt attacked for being mentally unwell and felt that the public opinion of him and his work was too harsh.
Despite people being harsh to the artist and the artwork, no one could stop the popularity that the painting gained over time. Just like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, The Scream has been the target for a number of thefts. Sadly, some damage was done to the artwork due to this. The first incident of theft took place in 1994, when two men broke into the National Gallery of Oslo, stole the painting and left a note saying. “Thanks for the poor security”. They even proceeded to ask for a ransom amount of US$1 million. Norwegian police refused to pay the ransom and through the help of a string operation along with the British Police, recovered the painting. In 2004, the 1910 version of The Scream was stolen from Munch Museum in Oslo by two masked gunmen. In 2005, the government offered a reward of roughly US$313,500 for any information on the location of the paintings. For obvious security reasons, the Munch Museum was closed for ten months and the painting was finally recovered in 2006. The police, however, never revealed how they managed to recover it and from where.
Munch would have never thought a painting that people once objected to would become a symbol of modern art years later. It has not only inspired emojis but also several film posters such as the expression of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) in the 1990 film Home Alone. It can also be seen on the cover of some editions of Arthur Janov’s 1970 book The Primal Scream. The cover art for the MGMT album Little Dark Age shows a figure resembling the subject of the painting, albeit in clown-like makeup.
Despite the shocking use of colour palette and recreation of the dramatic moment Munch experienced that one evening, The Scream will forever be the symbol of mental health and how humans cope with change and modern society. This is an evergreen representation of the inner turmoil that one goes through. The psychological impact of one’s changing environment is blissfully captured by Munch in this silent yet shrieking skeletal face.
Next Up in Behind The Art: Why was Jacques-Louis David’s painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps considered the perfect propaganda tool in 1801? What is the real story behind the image of Napoleon?