Revisiting Edvard Munch’s The Scream

An investigation of the meaning of the mysterious message

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893). Photo by Richard Mortel on Wikimedia.

Recently, the National Museum of Norway announced its determination that Munch had indeed written the message in the top left-hand corner of Munch’s most famous painting, The Scream. The message says:

Can only have been painted by a madman.”

Scholars and art historians have debated the meaning and origin of this unusual message for decades — this seems to put to rest the mystery of the message’s origin.

But what of its meaning?

In case you are wondering, “what was he thinking when he painted it? Which were his feelings?” Munch himself may have left the right answers for you in his private notes. Let’s see.

What sadness there lies in such evenings.
This light which fails and the
soft spring air — how fine it is.
Paris in her light blue veil and
the whole scene and the gaslights
which glimmer — But how sad. I
want to weep — scream out loud. [1]

In this poetic note, he didn’t mention his famous painting. But the feelings he had before painting The Scream seemed to be recurrent. In this second note, he did mention the subject of the painting:

The sky was like
blood — sliced with
strips of fire
— the hills turned
deep blue
the fjord — cut in
cold blue, yellow, and
red colors —
The exploding
bloody red — on
the path and hand railing
— my friends turned
glaring yellow white —
— I felt
a great scream
— and I heard,
yes, a great
scream —
the colors in
nature — broke
the lines of nature
— the lines and colors
vibrated with motion
— these oscillations of life
brought not only
my eye into oscillations,
it brought also my
ears into oscillations —
so I actually heard
a scream —
I painted
the picture Scream then. [2]

Where it was painted?

He painted the work on a road called Valhallveien in Oslo, Norway. The hill he refers to in his note was probably Ekeberg Hill. “The winding road up to the park on the top of Ekeberg Hill was a popular place for citizens of Oslo to view the city. The hill and park were also popular places for Oslo artists to paint.” [3]

The Influence of Edvard Munch

Art historians deem Munch a father of Expressionism. This movement arose and manifested mostly in Germany, “a place where Munch’s work had been widely seen and enthusiastically received, as well as where he lived for extended periods of time.”[4] Munch did indeed catalyze the Expressionist movement.

The German Expressionist movement is well known for developing “emphatic forms of drawing with powerful delineation and forcible and hyperbolic formal description. Notable examples include the works of Ernst Barlach, Käthe Kollwitz, Alfred Kubin, Ernest Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Max Beckmann, and George Grosz.” [5] These artists usually represented humans in poor circumstances, oppressed by modern-day heavy urban structures, and demonstrating many sorts of strong, hyperbolic, expressions.

(1) Max Beckmann’s Frauenbad (1919), on Wikimedia by Hathi Trust (2) Max Beckmann’s Synagoge (1919), on Wikimedia by Hathi Trust.

German expressionism also influenced the movie industry. Notably, Dr. Mabuse (1922), Dr. Caligari (1920), Metropolis (1927), and even horror movies like Nosferatu (1922), and other psychological dramas and horror movies from the same period. Even examples of film-noir are considered as part of the expressionist movement (even King Kong), or at least highly influenced by expressionism.

Some Biographical Details

Edvard Munch(1863–1944) was born in Norway and he spent two decades, from 1889 to 1909, traveling, studying, working, and exhibiting his paintings.

(1) Munch’s self-portrait (1882), by 4ing on Wikimedia. (2) Munch’s self-portrait (1907), by BotMultichillT on Wikimedia.

“No longer shall I paint interiors with men reading and women knitting. I will paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love.” — Edvard Munch.

Munch’s self-portrait and arm-bone (1895). Photo by Tord Lund on Wikimedia.

Munch experienced a pretty rough upbringing marked by sickness, poverty, the deaths of his mother and young sister, and he had a strict and rigidly religious father. Then, of course, he witnessed the first world war. He became, however, surprisingly experimental and innovative. As indicated by his own words above, he radically deviated from the nature of the society portraits and grand Scandinavian landscapes which were in vogue at that time. He was a deep thinker and throughout his career, he kept using intense unusual subjects for that time in his paintings.

My interpretation of the message

Based upon the information I have presented, I posit that the message on the top left corner of The Scream was part of this self-portrait, and/or The Scream metaphorically portrays Munch’s feelings. Perhaps self-aware of everything he was feeling and thinking at that time, and in such a deep journey, he probably felt he was a stranger to, or estranged from, himself sometimes. I think that is why he wrote that message.

[1] The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth, 2015. Translated by J. Gill Holland. Private note 22, p.26.

[2] The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth, 2015. Translated by J. Gill Holland. Private note 34, pages 64–65.

[3] Edvard Munch’s The Scream painting location, by Bob Egan in www.popspotsnyc.com/. Accessed in 2021.

[4] Munch and the Expressionist movement, 2016. By Victoria Hofmo in https://www.norwegianamerican.com/.

[5] History of Drawing, revised and last time updated in 2020. By Heribert R. Hutter in Encyclopedia Brittanica.

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