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The Scream (1893)- by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch

I can’t imagine a work of art more poignantly capturing an ill-defined but all-consuming sense of existential anguish than The Scream.

The lack of recognizable facial features on the principal subject somehow only serves to convey its emotions more acutely. It’s as if everything that once made this creature human has been stripped away, leaving behind only a raw core of fear and pain. These emotions are of such crushing magnitude that they distort material reality around the subject, causing the skies to boil and meld with the land and the sea. There’s no detail in the surroundings because it all pales into insignificance- even nonexistence- in the face of the subject’s pain.

Crucially, though, the two figures in the background are not distorted in the same way as the faceless subject. This fact, along with their physical distance from the subject, seems to drive home the idea that it is alone in its pain. There is no hope here of misery being assuaged by finding itself in like company. It suffers alone.

One of the most famous paintings of all time, The Scream is an example of Expressionist art, which sought to express emotional experience and the meaning of being alive rather than physical reality. It’s been the victim of several high-profile art thefts, and was recovered more than once in sting operations by police forces from several countries.

Upon examination of his life, one might find that it’s not too inappropriate that Edvard Munch would have created such a powerful depiction of human misery. Munch’s father was religious to the point of fanaticism, and forcibly imposed his values upon all of his five children. Of his father, Munch once said: “My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.”

Munch himself was chronically ill, but had to contend with the poor family’s constant moving from one sordid flat to another. One of his younger sisters was diagnosed with mental illness at an early age. Another quote attributed to Munch: “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption [tuberculosis] and insanity.”

It is interesting that Munch took an open-minded view of the world- and of art, in particular- in contrast to his father’s unwavering adherence to parochial religious dogma.

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2 Comments

  1. Really amazing article! Didn’t know that this single painting so clearly expressed the complexities in Munch’s life!

    • Thanks! It means a lot to me that you liked it :D!


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