The Scream, otherwise known as The Cry is a painting by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. The Scream depicts one central figure that is neither male nor female. The face resembles a fetal face, both hands covering the ears. At the background, two other figures walk into distance. The background scenery is that of blood-red sunset around a water body; sea or river. The brush strokes give the scene a swirling appearance.
In comprehending the meaning of The Scream, a brief biography of the artists life is vital. Edvard Munch was born in 1863, in Oslo, Norway- then known as Christania. His father was a military physician. His mother died from tuberculosis when he was around five years old. His sister too, perished from tuberculosis when he was a teenager. His only other sibling who grew old enough to marry died soon as he married. In 1889, his father died too. Edvard Munch life could thus be best described as a tragic affair. He spent most of his life, up to adulthood, in solitude. In the same 1889, he joined a radical anarchist group where he was introduced into modernism and encouraged to make art that depicted the anxieties and longings of the individual. The Scream thus can be viewed as a painting that tries to depict Edvards inner self. The painting shows the tragic life that he was accustomed to. It is a painting of a rather abstract inner self of the artist rather than the subjective appearance of what everyone can see. In a diary entry in 1892, Munch tried to give words to his painting.
I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun setting. I felt a breath of melancholy-suddenly the sky turned blood red. I stopped, and leaned against the railing, deeply tired. Looking out across the flaming clouds that hung like blood and a sword over the blue-black town. My friends walked on-as I stood there, trembling with fear. And I sensed a great infinite scream pass through me (Munch 1892).
What would normally be a beautiful conveyance of nature, with a beautiful sun-set and flowers, Munch transformed into a horrifying depiction of his emotional self. He was known to have suffered depression as a result of his tragic life and thus his art was him going his way into making the world understand his emotional turmoil. It was sort of an abstractive art as opposed to the traditional subjective artistic presentations. This portrayal of abstract human emotional feelings through art led Munch being labeled an existentialist. Existentialism pushes the notion that individuals are entirely free and must make choices for themselves. Every action of an individual tags along personal responsibility. Existentialists avoid to be tied to any system of thoughts or beliefs or any form of traditional philosophies.
Edvard Munch existed between two distinct periods. The end of the traditional thoughts and philosophies and at the onset of modernistic thoughts. His father was an astute Christian and now through his involvement with the radical anarchist, his stand on religion and other traditional philosophical system of beliefs were gradually being under scrutiny. The Scream might have been a portrayal of this emotional confusion that brought anxiety within Munchs life. His family subscribed to a staunch religious background; however, this did not help him avoid the tragic life of abject poverty, and his family members death. When modernistic thought system came through which sought to change everything that was hitherto deemed to be true and certain, Munch embraced it. However, this came with feelings of guilt. Abandoning a strong Christian background to embrace a system of beliefs that rejected the notion of there being a super natural being. He had swayed from his family values, the very family he loved so much that their suffering brought upon him a lot of anguish. In our contemporary world, we are constantly being faced with issues every now and then that cast doubt on our system of beliefs. People react differently in such scenarios. Some fight these new systems of beliefs, others embrace it. The Scream enables us understand how individuals may react differently to new things and the best thing is to choose to co-exist first instead of letting these issues wedge war amongst us. If we understand the concept of existentialism of freedom and choice, then we would let all individuals to be free and be able to make their choices without us having to necessarily impose our belief systems on them. The Scream could therefore help us understand better, issues such as discrimination e.g. Racism and religious intolerance.
The Scream also enables us to comprehend issues in the visual culture. This is visual culture. It is not just a part of your everyday life; it is your everyday life (Mirzoeff, 1998:3). Sight is one of the most important senses for human beings. We tend to place it above all the other senses. Physiologically, a child learns how to see before talking or hearing. The Scream in its depiction of visual culture, evokes the teaching of the notion that we see what we have been cultured to see (Parker 2012). What we see is not just the mere image but a conditioning by what we already know. To understand The Scream, we must have first heard the sound of an anguished scream (Arthur 2006). A deaf person understanding of The Scream would therefore be remotely different from that person with a sense of hearing. Thus The Scream could be used to explain how an image is seen based on ones cultural background that plays a role in determining our visual culture. A text book case would be different portrayal of beauty in the current world. Different parts of the world have different ways of portraying beauty which may be different from those of other parts of the world. This goes down to the difference in their culture that yields different visual cultures. We could comparatively look at the African culture and The Euro-American culture portrayal of a womans beauty. While the African culture deems a plump woman as more desirable, the Euro-American culture deems as desirable a woman that is slender. This cultural disparity may lead an African woman that finds herself in a pure Euro-American cultural environment or a Caucasian woman in within an African cultural setting to feel confused about the beauty parameters. An understanding of The Scream portrayal of visual culture enables us understand that beauty is not absolute but rather depends on the cultural setting within which we exist.
The Scream could also be viewed from an environmental standpoint. The swirling nature of bloody-red sun set depicting the perpetual destruction of nature that is now in its death bed. The sexless central figure aware of this destruction and petrified at whatever is about to befall mankind. The other figures walking from a distance and who are the majority are oblivious of everything that is happening to Mother Nature. This fearful moment when human beings realize their activities impact on the natural environment, and the irreversible changes he is responsible for that are gradually making the planet inhabitable. Recently, there have been plenty of environmental campaigns aiming to push awareness on environmental issues. Preservation of natural environment and how activities of humans affect it has taken centre stage. However, most of us are still unperturbed and our actions are still the same.This cry from Munchs painting could provoke the spirit of change within us whereby we start looking at how our actions affect and effect the conservation of the natural environment.
The Scream was the advent of artistic portrayal of the abstract emotional self of an individual. In his own rights, Munch could be described as an innovationist. He ventured into a new way of painting that had not been tried before. This was the integration of modernistic thoughts into art thus his modern style of painting. A lot can be learnt from this painting in terms of taking brave steps, breaking from the norm by seeking new ways and knowledge. Inventors from all fields could follow in the footsteps of Munch and be motivated into discovering new ways, exploring and executing new ideas. New ideas on governance and diplomacy, scientific discoveries and spirituality could all go in the way of making the world a far much better place.
The Scream could also help us in dealing with people going through difficult moments in their lives. Munch was undergoing depression in his life. The state of his family and the abject poverty he lived in despite his father being a military physician brought upon him depression. This might not have been known through a subjective look at his life. Maybe his outward appearance might have seemed just good but deep down, he was experiencing emotional breakdown. We have many people in the current world going through situations similar to Edvard Munch. Judging people through their outward outlook is wrong and we ought to be more sensitive about their emotional status. The abstract being rather than the subjective being is more important when trying to understand peoples anguish and their lifes turmoil. The Scream thus could bring more insight to psychologists, therapist and even peer counselors in trying to understand their patients.
Conclusively, The Scream can be best described as the most important modernistic art whose relevance continues transcending through generations. A good comprehension of this artistic masterpiece could stimulate change as well as evoking agency among mankind. Cultural, spiritual, environmental, humanitarian, scientific and most importantly artistic issues could well be explained via the prism of The Scream.
Arthur L., Edvard Munch: Beyond The Scream, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2006, (retrieved 29 March 2013)
Aspden P. (21 April 2012). "So, what does The Scream mean?" Financial Times.
Mirzoeff N. (1998) The Visual Culture Reader
Munch E.(1892). The ScreamParker A. (2 May 2012). "Will The Real Scream Please Stand Up". Retrieved 6 May 2012.
"The Scream". Becoming Edvard Munch Influence, Anxiety, and Myth. Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved 6 May 2012.
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