That Scream

The Scream. It’s one of the world’s most recognizable paintings, much replicated from art textbooks to extreme memes. What led artist Edvard Munch to create such a tortured painting?



‘I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies—the heritage of consumption and insanity,’  Edvard Munch wrote in his private journal. ‘Illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle.’

In 1868, five years after his birth, Munch’s mother died of tuberculosis. His favourite sister – 15 year old Sophie – met a similar fate in 1877. As she died, she asked to be placed in a chair which the shattered Edvard kept until his own death, at the age of 80 in 1944.
The Sick Child. 1896
Edvard spat blood and battled his own TB under the watch of a doctor father obsessed with death. Another sister, Laura, lived most of her life in a ‘mental institution,’ while his only brother was hit by pneumonia and died at age 30. The tip of Munch’s left middle finger was shot off during a battle with his lover.
We can’t be surprised that it is Munch behind one of the world’s most recognizable paintings: The Scream. He used blood-red paint to inscribe this poem onto the frame of a 1895 pastel version – one of four Screams:
I was walking along the road with two friends.
The Sun was setting –
The Sky turned a bloody red
And I felt a whiff of Melancholy – I stood
Still, deathly tired – over the blue-black
Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire
My Friends walked on – I remained behind
– shivering with Anxiety – I felt the great Scream in Nature
The Scream was but one of the tremendously innovative paintings created by Munch, who didn’t like to be far from his creations. When he died, the Norwegian authorities found more than 1,000 paintings, 4,000 drawings and 15,000 prints hidden in his house.
Norway remains the best place to get a rich sense of Munch the artist. Two Scream paintings have been stolen and rescued there: one from the National Gallery in Oslo, one from the Munch Museum. Though the National Gallery is currently closed, you’ll be able to see their Scream when it reopens in 2022 as the ‘largest art museum in the Nordic countries.’
Meanwhile, you can see a wonderful, permanent exhibit of Munch – one of the biggest in the world –  at the Kode 3 Museum in Bergen. These 50 paintings and more than 100 paper works come from the collection of Rasmus Meyer, one of Munch’s first collectors.
Women in Three Stages. 1894
By the Death Bed. 1896
Nude in Profile towards the Right. 1898
Inger on the Beach. 1889
The Gangway. 1903
Header: Evening on Karl Johan Street. 1892

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Elizabeth Newton