Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream

Edvard Munch
Behind the Scream

by Sue Prideaux

Excerpt from Chapter Fourteen
God is Dead, Berlin


Despite, or maybe because of, his enormous schedule of exhibitions interspersed with the intense emotional and intellectual paroxysms of the Piglet, Munch had found time to paint the originals of ten of his enduring masterpieces (40) during the strange hallucinogenic period, which ended with the first of his many exhibitions of the group of paintings that was to become the Frieze of Life (*). A modest show in a rented second-floor space in Unter den Linden showed a large part of the ‘Love’ section of the Frieze.

It started with The Voice showing the call of love on the shores of Åasgardstrand. Next the awakening of physical love in The Kiss, the pain of love in Vampire and the mystery of sex in Madonna, after which Jealousy leads finally to despair, The Scream.

All year he had been striving towards the final painting, developing the composition. In September, Norway called him home to paint. He wrote how the visionary experience of The Scream came to him:

I went along the road with two friends—
The sun set
Suddenly the sky became blood—and I felt the breath of sadness
A tearing pain beneath my heart
I stopped—leaned against the fence—deathly tired
Clouds over the fjord of blood dripped reeking with blood
My friends went on but I just stood trembling with an open wound
in my breast trembling with anxiety I heard a huge extraordinary
scream pass through nature. (41)

The experience came to him high up on Ekeberg at sunset. Ekeberg is to the east of Oslo. It is the only point from which one can look across and see the city Munch now hated, spread across the water, as Christ saw the city spread before Him from a high place, when the Devil tempted Him. What looks like a road in the painting was in fact a path, and the railing is a safety railing, though it looks like a bridge. It does not look very different today, if one blanks out the industry round the docks the same silhouette of Oslo can be seen bulging out. (42)

The main slaughterhouse for the city was up there, and so was Gaustad, the city’s madhouse, in which Laura had been incarcerated. He had probably gone up there to visit her; there was no other discernible reason. The screams of the animals being slaughtered in combination with the screams of the insane were reported to be a terrible thing to hear.

If every self-portrait is a portrait of the soul to some degree, The Scream (43) was the portrait of the soul stripped as far from the visible as possible—the image on the reverse, the hidden side of the eyeball as Munch looked into himself. ‘We paint souls’. It has come to be seen as a painting of the dilemma of modern man, a visualization of Nietzsche’s cry, ‘God is dead, and we have nothing to replace him.’ Another interpretation is that The Scream is the fundamental starting point for the creative artist. It is the panic-chaos that is the source and necessity of all creative inspiration. Strindberg’s interpretation was, ‘A scream of fear just as nature, turning red from wrath, prepares to speak before the storm and thunder, to the bewildered little creatures who, without resembling them in the least, imagine themselves to be gods.’ (44)

It is often linked with Schopenhauer’s concept of dread. Writing in Philosophie der Kunst, Schopenhauer ponders the degree of expressiveness that a work of art can achieve and he sets the challenge for pictorial art to reproduce a scream. But munch specifically stated that he did not come across Schopenhauer until much later in his life and there seems no reason why he should want to mislead over this.

What is certain is that as a symbol it generously fulfils Munch’s requirement, if not the requirement of the Symbolisits: it is capable of manifold, almost infinite interpretations. The last words can be left to him: ‘And for several years I was almost mad—that was the time when the terror of insanity reared up its twisted head. You know my picture, The Scream? I was being stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood—I was at breaking point . . . You know my pictures, you know it all—you know I felt it all. After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.’ (45)

(back to text)

40. The Storm, Moonlight, Death and the Maiden, Starry Night, The Hands, Dagny Przybyszewska, Sunrise at Åasgardstrand and Evening (Melancholy) as well as the new versions of Puberty and The Morning After. (back to text)

41. T 2782*, p.74, translation by the author. This is one of at least eight alternative texts Munch wrote for The Scream in Norwegian and in German, as well as one in French that accompanied the lithograph in La Revue Blanche, 1 December 1895. The texts vary in date, so far as date can be ascertained, between 1895 and 1930. They are all reproduced in Reinhold Heller, Edvard Munch: The Scream (London: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1973), pp. 105-6. (back to text)

*This number refers to Munch’s papers in the Munch Museum, Oslo.

42. Tram 19-Ljabru goes to the Old Marine Training School (Sjømannskolen).Walking down below the school on the railed path, the city can be seen from the approximate angle of The Scream. (back to text)

43. There are four coloured versions of The Scream, all mixed media—pencil, paints and pastel—on cardboard. Some have blank eyeballs, some have pupils. Some look as if the scream is an exhalation, some an inhalation. It is disputed which is the original version. The Nasjonalgalleriet version was painted at night for there is a splatter-pattern of candle wax in the bottom left-hand corner from when, presumably, he decided it was finished, blew out his candle and went to bed. (back to text)

44. August Strindberg, ‘L’exposition Edvard Munch’, La Revue Blanche 10 (1896), pp. 525-6. (back to text)

45. Munch, c. 1900, see Pål Hougen, Edvard Munch, Tegninger, skisser og studier, OKK Kat. A3, 1973, p. 10, Munch Museum. (back to text)


Copyright © 2005 by Sue Prideaux.

All works by Edvard Munch are
copyright © Munch Museum/Munch-Ellingsen Group/DACS 2005

All rights reserved.
This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, including illustrations, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the U.S. Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press) without written permission from the publishers.

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