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Art Analysis: Meaning of The Scream by Edvard Munch

Edward Munch Photo
Edvard Munch, who never married, called his paintings his children and hated to be separated from them. Living alone on his estate outside Oslo for the last 27 years of his life, increasingly revered and increasingly isolated, he surrounded himself with work that dated to the start of his long career. Upon his death in 1944, at the age of 80, the authorities discovered - behind locked doors on the second floor of his house - a collection of 1,008 paintings, 4,443 drawings and 15,391 prints, as well as woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, lithographic stones, woodcut blocks, copperplates and photographs. Yet in a final irony of his difficult life, Munch is famous today as the creator of a single image, which has obscured his overall achievement as a pioneering and influential painter and printmaker

Munch's The Scream is an icon of modern art, a Mona Lisa for our time. As Leonardo da Vinci evoked a Renaissance ideal of serenity and self-control, Munch defined how we see our own age - wracked with anxiety and uncertainty. His painting of a sexless, twisted, fetal-faced creature, with mouth and eyes open wide in a shriek of horror, re-created a vision that had seized him as he walked one evening in his youth with two friends at sunset. As he later described it, the "air turned to blood" and the "faces of my comrades became a garish yellow-white." Vibrating in his ears he heard "a huge endless scream course through nature." He made two oil paintings, two pastels and numerous prints of the image; the two paintings belong to Oslo's National Gallery and to the Munch Museum, also in Oslo. Both have been stolen in recent years, and the Munch Museum's is still missing. The thefts have only added posthumous misfortune and notoriety to a life filled with both, and the added attention to the purloined image has further distorted the artist's reputation.

With the aim of correcting the balance, a major retrospective of Munch's work, the first to be held in an American museum in almost 30 years, opened last month at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. "Everybody knows, but everybody doesn't know Munch," says Kynaston McShine, the MoMA curator-at-large who organized the exhibition. "They all have the idea that they know Munch, but they really don't."

The Munch who materializes in this show is a restless innovator whose personal tragedies, sicknesses and failures fed his creative work. "My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness," he once wrote. "Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder....My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art." Munch believed that a painter mustn't merely transcribe external reality but should record the impact a remembered scene had on his own sensibility. As demonstrated in a recent exhibition of self-portraits at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Royal Academy of Arts in London, much of Munch's work can be seen as self-portraiture. Even for an artist, he was exceptionally narcissistic. "Munch's work is like a visual autobiography," McShine observes.

Although he began his artistic career as a student of Norwegian painter Christian Krohg, who advocated the realistic depiction of contemporary life known as Naturalism, Munch developed a psychologically charged and expressive style to transmit emotional sensation. Indeed, by the time he raised his brush to the easel, he typically no longer paid attention to his model. "I do not paint what I see, but what I saw," he once explained. Influenced as a young man by his exposure in Paris to the work of Gauguin and van Gogh, who both rejected the academic conventions of the official Salon, he progressed toward simplified forms and blocks of intense color with the avowed purpose of conveying strong feelings. In early 1890, in a huff, Munch quit the class of an esteemed Parisian painting teacher who had criticized him for portraying a rosy brick wall in the green shades that appeared to him in a retinal afterimage. In ways that antagonized the contemporary art critics, who accused him of exhibiting "a discarded half-rubbed-out sketch" and mocked his "random blobs of color," he would incorporate into his paintings graffiti-like scrawls, or thin his paint and let it drip freely.

The radical simplicity of his woodcut technique, in which he often used only one brilliant color and exposed the grain of the wood on the print, can still seem startlingly new. For the woodcuts, he developed his own method, incising the image with rough broad strokes and cutting the finished woodblocks into sections that he inked separately. His printmaking style, as well as the bold composition and color palette of his paintings, would deeply influence the German Expressionists of the early 20th century, including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and August Macke. Characteristically, though, Munch shunned the role of mentor. He preferred to stand apart.

One of Munch's earliest memories was of his mother, confined with tuberculosis, gazing wistfully from her chair at the fields that stretched outside the window of their house in Kristiania (now Oslo). She died in 1868, leaving Edvard, who was 5, his three sisters and younger brother in the care of her much older husband, Christian, a doctor imbued with a religiosity that often darkened into gloomy fanaticism. Edvard's aunt Karen came to live with the family, but the boy's deepest affection resided with Sophie, his older sister. Her death nine years later at age 15, also of tuberculosis, lacerated him for life. Dying, she asked to be lifted out of bed and placed in a chair; Munch, who painted many compositions of her illness and last days, kept that chair until his death. (Today it is owned by the Munch Museum.)

Compounding Edvard's misery was his own fragile health. As Sue Prideaux recounts in her new biography, Edvard Munch: Behind The Scream, he had tuberculosis and spit blood as a boy. His father's expressed preference for the next world (an alarming trait in a physician) only amplified the son's sense of death's imminence. One of Munch's finest self-portraits, a lithograph of 1895, depicts his head and clerical-looking collar materializing out of a black background; a thin white band at the top of the work contains his name and the year, and a corresponding strip below features a skeletal arm. "I inherited two of mankind's most frightful enemies - the heritage of consumption and insanity - illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle," he wrote in an undated private journal. In a never-ending saga of woe, one of Edvard's sisters spent most of her life institutionalized for mental illness, and his one brother, who had seemed atypically robust for a Munch, died suddenly of pneumonia at 30. Only his youngest sister, Inger, who like him never married, survived into old age.

Edvard's precocious talent was recognized early. How quickly his art (and his personality) evolved can be seen from two self-portraits. A small, three-quarters profile on cardboard, painted in 1881-82 when he was only 18, depicts the a rtist's classic good looks - straight nose, cupid's-bow mouth, strong chin - with a fine brush and academic correctness. Five years later, Munch's palette-knife work in a larger self-portrait is impressionistic and splotchy. His hair and throat blur into the background; his lowered gaze and outthrust chin lend him an insolent air; and the red rims of his eyes suggest boozy, sleepless nights, the start of a long descent into alcoholism.

For a full-length portrait in 1889 of Hans Jaeger, the nihilist at the heart of the bohemian crowd in Kristiania with whom Munch increasingly fraternized, the artist posed the notorious writer in a slouch on a sofa with a glass tumbler on the table in front of him and a hat low on his forehead. Jaeger's head is aslant and his eyes jut forward in a pose both arrogant and dissolute. Along with psychological astuteness, the compelling portrait demonstrates Munch's awareness of recent developments in painting. The dappled blue-and-gray brushwork of Jaeger's coat suggests Impressionism, especially the works of Paul Cezanne and Claude Monet, which the Norwegian may have seen on trips to Paris in 1885 and 1889.

For Christian Munch, who was struggling to pay the expenses of his son's education, Edvard's association with dubious companions was a source of anguish. Edvard, too, was torn. Though he lacked his father's faith in God, he had nonetheless inherited his sense of guilt. Reflecting later on his bohemian friends and their embrace of free love, he wrote: "God - and everything was overthrown - everyone raging in a wild, deranged dance of life....But I could not set myself free from my fear of life and thoughts of eternal life."

His first sexual experience apparently took place in the summer of 1885, when he was 21, with Millie Thaulow, the wife of a distant cousin. They would meet in the woods near the charming fishing village of Aasgaardstrand. He was maddened and thrilled while the relationship lasted and tormented and desolate when Millie ended it after two years. The theme of a forlorn man and a dominating woman fascinated Munch. In one of his most celebrated images, Vampire (1893-94), a red-haired woman can be seen sinking her mouth into the neck of a disconsolate-looking lover, her tresses streaming over him like poisonous tendrils. In another major painting, his 1894 Ashes, a woman reminiscent of Millie confronts the viewer, her white dress unbuttoned to reveal a red slip, her hands raised to the sides of her head while a distraught lover holds his head in despair.

Munch was in Paris in November 1889 when a friend delivered a letter to him. Verifying that it contained bad news, he bid the friend farewell and went alone to a nearby restaurant, deserted except for a couple of waiters, where he read that his father had died of a stroke. Although their relationship had been fraught - "He didn't understand my needs; I didn't understand the things he prized most highly," Munch once observed - the death unhinged him. Now head of a financially pressed family, he was sobered by the responsibility and gripped by remorse that he had not been with his father when he died. Because of this absence, he could not release his feelings of grief into a painting of the death scene, as he had done when his mother and his sister Sophie died. Night in Saint Cloud (painted in 1890), a moody, blue interior of his suburban Paris apartment, captures his state of mind. In it, a shadowy figure in a top hat - his roommate, Danish poet Emanuel Goldstein - stares out a window at the bright lights on the Seine River. Evening light, streaming through a mullioned window, casts a symbolic pattern of a cross onto the floor, evoking the spirit of his devout father.

Following his father's death, Munch embarked on the most productive - if most troubled - stage of his life. Dividing his time between Paris and Berlin, he undertook a series of paintings that he called The Frieze of Life. He produced 22 works as part of the series for a 1902 exhibition of the frieze in Berlin. Suggestive of his state of mind, the paintings bore such titles as Melancholy, Jealousy, Despair, Anxiety, Death in the Sickroom and The Scream, which he painted in 1893. His style varies dramatically during this period, depending on the emotion he was trying to communicate in a particular painting. He turned to an Art Nouveau sultriness for Madonna (1894-95) and a stylized, psychologically laden Symbolism for Summer Night's Dream (1893). In his superb Self-portrait with Cigarette of 1895, painted while he was feverishly engaged with The Frieze of Life, he employed the flickering brushwork of Whistler, scraping and rubbing at the suit jacket so that his body appears as evanescent as the smoke that trails from the cigarette he holds smoldering near his heart. In Death in the Sickroom, a moving evocation of Sophie's death painted in 1893, he adopted the bold graphic outlines of van Gogh, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. In it, he and his sisters loom in the foreground, while his aunt and praying father attend to the dying girl, who is obscured by her chair. Across the vast space that divides the living siblings (portrayed as adults) from their dying sister, the viewer's eye is drawn to the vacated bed and useless medicines in the rear.

In 1898, on a visit to Kristiania, Munch had met the woman who would become his cruel muse. Tulla Larsen was the wealthy daughter of Kristiania's leading wine merchant, and at 29, she was still unmarried. Munch's biographers have relied on his sometimes conflicting and far from disinterested accounts to reconstruct the tormented relationship. He first set eyes on Larsen when she arrived at his studio in the company of an artist with whom he shared the space. From the outset, she pursued him aggressively. In his telling, their affair began almost against his will. He fled - to Berlin, then on a yearlong dash across Europe. She followed. He would refuse to see her, then succumb. He memorialized their relationship in The Dance of Life of 1899-1900, set on midsummer's night in Aasgaardstrand, the seaside village where he once trysted with Millie Thaulow and where, in 1897, he had purchased a tiny cottage. At the center of the picture, a vacant-eyed male character, representing Munch himself, dances with a woman in a red dress (probably Millie). Their eyes do not meet, and their stiff bodies maintain an unhappy distance. To the left, Larsen can be seen, golden-haired and smiling benevolently, in a white dress; on the right, she appears again, this time frowning in a black dress, her countenance as dark as the garment she wears, her eyes downcast in bleak disappointment. On a green lawn, other couples dance lustfully in what Munch had called that "deranged dance of life" - a dance he dared not join.

Larsen longed for Munch to marry her. His Aasgaardstrand cottage, which is now a house museum, contains the antique wedding chest, made for a bride's trousseau, that she gave him. Though he wrote that the touch of her "narrow, clammy lips" felt like the kiss of a corpse, he yielded to her imprecations and even went so far as to make a grudging proposal. "In my misery I think you would at least be happier if we were married," he wrote to her. Then, when she came to Germany to present him with the necessary papers, he lost them. She insisted that they travel to Nice, as France did not require these documents. Once there, he escaped over the border to Italy and eventually to Berlin in 1902 to stage The Frieze of Life exhibition.

That summer, Munch returned to his cottage in Aasgaardstrand. He sought peace, but drinking heavily and brawling publicly, he failed to find it. Then after more than a year's absence, Larsen reappeared. He ignored her overtures, until her friends informed him that she was in a suicidal depression and taking large doses of morphine. He reluctantly agreed to see her. There was a quarrel, and somehow - the full story is unknown - he shot himself with a revolver, losing part of a finger on his left hand and also inflicting on himself a less obvious psychological injury. Prone to exaggerated feelings of persecution - in his painting Golgotha of 1900, for instance, he depicted himself nailed to a cross - Munch magnified the fiasco in his mind, until it assumed an epic scale. Describing himself in the third person, he wrote, "Everybody stared at him, at his deformed hand. He noticed that those he shared a table with were disgusted by the sight of his monstrosity." His anger intensified when Larsen, a short time later, married another artist. "I had sacrificed myself needlessly for a whore," he wrote.

In the next few years, his drinking, which had long been excessive, grew uncontrollable. "The rages were coming more and more often now," he wrote in his journal. "The drink was meant to calm them, especially in the morning but as the day wore on I became nervy, angry." Anguished as he was, he still managed to produce some of his finest work, including a tableau (executed in several versions) in which he uses himself as the model for the slain French revolutionary Marat, and Larsen is cast as Marat's assassin, the grim, implacable Charlotte Corday. His 1906 Self-portrait with a Bottle of Wine, in which he paints himself alone at a restaurant table, with only a plate, a wine bottle and a glass, testifies to intense disquiet. Two waiters stand behind him in the almost empty restaurant, evoking the setting in which he had read of his father's death.

In the fall of 1908, Munch collapsed in Copenhagen. Hearing hallucinatory voices and suffering paralysis on his left side, he was persuaded by his old roommate from the Saint-Cloud apartment, Emanuel Goldstein, to check himself into a private sanitarium on the outskirts of the city. There he reduced his drinking and regained some mental stability. In May, he departed, vigorous and eager to get back to his easel. Almost half of his life remained. Yet most art historians would agree that the great preponderance of his best work was created before 1909. His late years would be less tumultuous, but at a price of personal isolation. Reflecting this view, MoMA devotes less than a fifth of the show to his post-1909 output. "In his later years," explains curator McShine, "there are not as many poignant paintings as there were when he was involved with life."

In 1909, Munch returned to Norway, where he began work on an important series of murals for the assembly hall at Oslo University. Still in place, the Aula Decorations, as the murals are known, signaled Munch's new determination to look on the bright side, in this case quite literally, with a centerpiece of a dazzling sun. In newly independent Norway, Munch was hailed as the national artist, much as the then recently deceased Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg served, respectively, as national writer and composer. Along with his new fame came wealth, but not serenity. Maintaining his distance from an alternately adoring and scornful public, Munch withdrew to Ekely, an 11-acre estate on the outskirts of Oslo that he purchased in 1916 for a sum equivalent to the price of two or three of his paintings. He sometimes defended his isolation as necessary to produce his work. At other times, he implied it was needed to maintain his sanity. "The second half of my life has been a battle just to keep myself upright," he wrote in the early 1920s.

At Ekely, Munch took up landscape painting, depicting the countryside and farm life around him, at first with joyous color, later in bleaker tones. He also returned to favorite images, producing new renditions of some of The Frieze of Life paintings. In his later years, Munch supported his surviving family members financially and communicated with them by mail, but chose not to visit them. He spent much of his time in solitude, documenting the afflictions and indignities of his advancing years. When he was stricken with a nearly fatal influenza in the great pandemic of 1918-19, he recorded his gaunt, bearded figure in a series of self-portraits as soon as he could pick up a brush. In 1930, after a blood vessel burst in his right eye and impaired his vision, he painted, in such works as Self-portrait During the Eye Disease, the clot as it appeared to him - a large, irregular purple sphere. Sometimes he gave the sphere a head and sharp beak, like a demonic bird of prey. Eventually, it flew off; his vision returned to normal.

In Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, which dates from 1940-42, not long before Munch's death, we can see what had become of the man who, as he wrote, hung back from "the dance of life." Looking stiff and physically awkward, he stands wedged between a grandfather clock and a bed, as if apologizing for taking up so much space. On a wall behind him, his "children" are arrayed, one above the other. Like a devoted parent, he sacrificed everything for them.

Edvard Munch's Masterpieces

  • The Scream
  • The Day After
  • Sun
  • Vampire
  • The Dance of Life
  • Madonna
  • Anxiety
  • Girl on the Bridge
  • Melancholy
  • The Storm
  • Woman in Three Stages
  • Young Woman on the Beach