Painting reviewed – The Scream, 1893, By Edvard Munch. National Gallery Oslo.
The painting, The Scream, by Edvard Munch is compelling, even at first glance. The colors, lines, and movement combine to elicit a response from the viewer that is emotional, possibly even visceral. In order to understand the painting a brief description of the artistic period in which it was painted and the artist are necessary.
Edvard Munch, from Norway was an artist during a pivotal time in the art world. During the latter part of the 19th century, artists known as "Impressionists", shocked and angered the art world by departing from the classical painting technique of Realism.
They produced paintings that experimented and explored the "other" elements of a composition such as, color, light, and form. This is the first time art compositions were "abstracted" from what the subject actually or realistically looked like. The second wave of Impressionism, known as Post-Impressionism, followed in the late 1800’s.
The Post-Impressionist artists took the abstraction of their subjects a step further. "A more systematic examination of the properties of three-dimensional space; of the expressive qualities of line, pattern, and color; and of the symbolic character of the subject matter…" defines Post-Impressionism in Art Through the Ages, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980). It is during the Post-Impressionist period that Munch paints The Scream. Edvard Munch continues his artistic endeavors into the 20th century, being most well known for his print work in the German Expressionist movement.
Edvard Munch was dealt a difficult hand with the death of his mother as child and his sister as a teenager. These deaths were believed to have left a huge impression on Munch, which was expressed in his artwork.
When viewing The Scream one of the first things that you will notice is its linear aspect by his use of repeating lines one after the other and parallel to define his objects and create a kinetic and almost frenzied mood. The swirls add movement and pull you in and around the image while adding a sense of confusion. The very strong, bold diagonal of the railing is the only stable element of the painting, having a grounding effect to the otherwise chaotic surroundings. No matter where your eye first lands on this composition, it immediately is drawn to the central figure. This person appears locked in a state of terror frozen by a fear, real or imagined. It is this central figure that evokes such a reponse from the viewer. The silent scream reverberates within the painting and out to the viewer. The two shadowy figures in the background are somewhat mysterious, are they lurking and frightening the screamer or have they passed by and not even noticed the other person’s terror? Munch uses color quite dramatically in this painting. The vivid blood red of the sky, the yellowish cast to the skeletal face and the dark moody colors of the river add to the emotionalism of this piece.
In relation to his contemporaries at the time that The Scream was painted, Munch maintained the artistic standard of the Post-impressionists, however, it the emotionalism in this piece that is noticeably different from other artists at the time. The Post-impressionists focused on the elements of line, pattern, color and the symbolic nature of the subject, but Munch took this a step further. In part due to his personal tragedies and suffering through mental illness, Munch’s paintings were "different". The treatment of the subject was not as important as depicting or painting emotion. It is this departure that sets Munch as the originator of "Expressionism". The subject and elements became a symbol for emotions, expressions, and thoughts (and particularly with Munch, neuroses).
Munch was not always understood in his native Norway. In the early 1890’s he had an exhibition in Berlin, while not well received, placed him in the surroundings that allowed him to thrive. It was not Paris, but Berlin of the 1890’s was receptive to novelty and the artist’s circles more readily accepted Munch the outsider.
During Munch’s time the established art world shunned and rejected the artists of early abstraction such as Impressionism. Munch and his contemporaries gave the art-viewing world something else to think about. Do not focus on the depiction of the subject but what is the feeling being conveyed. Appreciate the abstraction simply by the colors and shapes it makes. Munch had exposure to Cézanne and Van Gogh (as seen in his repetitive parallel lines), who as Post-Impressionists were leading the way to more abstract concepts. The Scream cannot be appreciated for its realism, but at the very least it will cause a response in the viewer, either by the abstract treatment of the subject or by the actual scene itself. The scene is the most powerful part of the painting and offers many different symbols and interpretations. Relative to the above statements, The Scream is art. It causes one to stop and notice it, to try to figure out what is happening, possibly frighten and even invoke sympathy for the screaming person. Munch meant for us to react to this primal scream, as an example of his or anybody’s’ panic or even society’s.
What is interesting is that Munch painted The Scream during the Victorian period, which was stuffy and modest in mainstream society. Munch steps out with this emotional piece and bares his soul, (society’s) for all to see. The inner self is not typically exposed in such an in your face way in Victorian times.
Munch’s piece although over one hundred years old is still a viable and important piece of artwork. It has not lost its meaning or impact over the course of time. As the twentieth century has progressed (now into the twenty first century), the "abstract paintings of the late 1800’s seem almost realistic compared to the very abstract movements that were part of the twentieth century. It may be that "The Scream" is accepted and better understood today, but that in no way lessens its impact on the viewer. It is not attached to any historical or geographic references that would predispose a person to have an opinion of it. Thus the abstraction of the scene and the anguish depicted of the subject continues to draw people to view The Scream, react to it, and possibly to their own anguish.
Gardner. , Art Through the Ages, Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich. New York. 1980.