Edvard Munch's The Scream numbers among the most celebrated images in art history. It is one of few masterpieces that require no introduction, as it has been analyzed, reproduced, referenced, interpreted and commercialized more often than perhaps any picture bar Leonardo's Mona Lisa. Since its creation in the 1890s The Scream has become of a cornerstone of our visual culture, burned onto our collective retina as the definitive image of horror at modernity's core. In one image, Munch initiates the Expressionist gesture which will fuel art history through the twentieth century and beyond.
The present composition was completed in 1895 and is one of four renditions of The Scream (figs. 1 - 4). The other three versions are housed in Norwegian museums, leaving this the only Scream in private hands. Munch executed the prime version, now in the Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, in the fall of 1893. The image was conceived as a part of an epic series, known as the Frieze of Life, exploring the progression of modern emotional life through themes of Love, Anxiety and Death. The Scream was conceived as the climactic finale of the Love cycle. This narrative explores the beckoning of love (The Voice), its aspects of pleasure (The Kiss); pain (The Vampire, fig. 5); erotic mystery (Madonna); guilt (Ashes, fig. 6) and, ultimately, despair (The Scream). Munch's ambition with the Frieze was to create through deeply-felt personal experience a new kind of history painting for the godless age.
Entitled Motifs from the Life of a Modern Soul, the Frieze was first shown in Berlin in 1893. The Scream was singled out as the most powerful composition and quickly transcended its original context. It began, in fact, the previous year as a prose-poem describing Munch's experience at Ekeberg in the hills above Kristiania (now Oslo, fig. 7). Uniquely, he inscribed this text on the frame of the present work in blood-red paint:
I was walking along the road with two friends. The Sun was setting –
The Sky turned a bloody red
And I felt a whiff of Melancholy – I stood
Still, deathly tired – over the blue-black
Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire
My Friends walked on – I remained behind
– shivering with Anxiety – I felt the great Scream in Nature
Rooted in Munch's own experience, The Scream reveals the influence of Hans Jaeger, the nihilist leader of Kristiania's bohemian group. Jaeger attacked Christianity, bourgeois morality and law as false idols, inspiring Munch to penetrate beyond their artifice. As Reinhold Heller describes, "Hans Jaeger had formulated the dictum that a writer write only his own biography; to Munch he left the advice to paint his own life, and Munch formulated it into 'I paint, not what I see, but what I saw'. This was the content of his new monumental art; subjective psychological experiences, raised to the level of universal statements analyzing the soul of modern man - replacing the Greek epics, the drama of history which Lessing had still seen as the artist's source of inspiration. Introspection replaced external inspiration" (R. Heller, op. cit., p. 39).
Munch's first attempt at rendering visually his Ekeberg experience was his painting Despair from 1892 (fig. 9). In this composition, also known by the evocative title Deranged Mood at Sunset, the artist depicts himself leaning contemplatively over the clifftop balustrade while the sun sets over the fjord and his friends walk on ahead. Over subsequent months he developed this theme (fig. 10). Suddenly, in one sketch, Munch turns the head of his protagonist to face the viewer (fig. 11). This gesture transforms the image, ripping away its anecdotal, mood-driven roots and creating instead a confrontation. What is more, in the pastel Scream of 1893 which follows this decisive rupture the figure has been stripped of its hat and every civilizing feature: sexually-ambiguous, with facial features diminished, it now appears dehumanized, spineless and organic. Munch's protagonist, without precedent in the history of art, appears fully-formed, startling and mesmerizing. As Heller notes, "The sexless, emasculated figure of The Scream loses itself in the environment as its skull-like face and twisting torso takes on the art nouveau curvature of the landscape rather than retaining human form. In its intense state of anxiety and despair, it becomes less real than the vitalized environment surrounding it and the loss of identity becomes death" (ibid., p. 90).
After executing two versions in 1893, Munch would return to The Scream only twice, outside of graphic media. In 1895 he created the present example for German coffee magnate Arthur von Franquet, probably as a direct commission. Von Franquet was an early collector of Munch's graphic work whose correspondence reflects his importance in the artist's eyes. The emphatic signature, date, and plaque featuring the Ekeberg text suggest that Munch was keen to impress Von Franquet with his Scream. Munch held on to the 1893 picture until 1910, when he sold it to Norwegian industrialist, Olaf Schou. Always hating to part with his "children", it is believed that he made a final version for his own collection at that point.
The present Scream has perhaps the greatest visual impact of all. In a new essay, Reinhold Heller argues that the 1893 picture "was dominated by relatively muted hues, their intensity dampened in their thin pigment. The 1895 pastel, in contrast, explodes and throbs with intense color, with sharp reds, acid yellows, blaring orange, absorbent blues and somber green. This pastel, in effect, screams louder, more persistently, more intensely, more stridently." (R. Heller, "Making a Picture Scream," 2012, in Sotheby's catalogue devoted to The Scream). Also unique to this version is the modification of one of the "friends", who pauses to look out over Kristiania. With this revision Munch takes us back to the Scream's origins in Despair and also dramatizes the stages of his prose-poem (reading the figures from background to foreground).
To reflect the innovative subject matter of his Frieze of Life, Munch sought to create a radically new kind of art-object which defined itself against centuries of picture-making. All versions of The Scream are executed on board, eschewing the sensuous appeal of oil paint on canvas, as well as glazes and varnishes which mask the artistic process. In place of illusion, the artist insists shockingly upon the authenticity of his mark. "Rather than eliminating "primitive", uncultured, unrefined, unfinished and seemingly unskilled qualities, Munch preserved and vehemently accented, even exaggerated and intensified them. ...[The Scream] appears as if it were rapidly executed, leaving no time to hide its diverse components. It acts as an evident record of its own making, of Munch's action on it as he made the marks and forms on its surface. The picture is its own autobiography made visible. As such it cannot be separated from its own maker, and testifies to the same "I" that is the voice of the prose-poem. Both are offered as testimony to a personal experience being revealed" (ibid.).
Sue Prideaux explores the context of that personal experience in her biography of the artist. Munch was raised in a pious bourgeois family with a history of mental illness and tragedy, including the traumatic loss of his mother, sister and father, as well as a near-death experience of his own. His art spelled rebellion and the site of epiphany at Ekeberg was a loaded one: "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 was the city spread before Him from a high place, when the Devil tempted him.... The main slaughterhouse for the city was up there, and so was Gaustad, the city's madhouse, in which Laura [Munch's sister] 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 screams of the insane were reported to be a terrible thing to hear" (S. Prideaux, op. cit., p. 151). Ekeberg was also, it might be added, a notorious suicide spot.
With this projection of his psychological state, Munch far exceeds even the most daring proto-Expressionist compositions of his Dutch contemporary, Vincent van Gogh (fig. 12). This is what makes Munch so great and so significant," wrote the Polish critic Przybyszweski, "that everything which is deep and dark, all that for which language has not yet found any words, and which expresses itself solely as a dark, foreboding instinct..." (quoted in R. Heller, op. cit., p. 76).
There is no question that Munch's Scream experience was sincere and profoundly harrowing, albeit one heightened by stress and alcoholism. "You know my picture, The Scream?", he later wrote, "I was being stretched to the limit – nature was screaming in my blood – I was at a breaking point... You know my pictures, you know it all – you know I felt it all" (ibid., p. 152). Yet the artist was also more self-aware and marketing savvy than history has tended to portray. He certainly cultivated his identity as the quintessential Nordic melancholic loner. In 1892, "Die Affaire Munch", his Berlin exhibition famously closed down after a week by a scandalized art establishment, taught him that shocking his audience was an assured route to celebrity and success: "This is the best thing that could have happened to me!", he wrote to his Tante Karen, "A better advertisement I couldn't have wished for.... Send the evening things as soon as you can but actually I need money more than clothes. Yes, the exhibition is creating enormous indignation since there are a lot of terrible old painters who are beside themselves at the new trend..." (quoted in ibid, pp. 137-38).
When, several months later, Munch created The Scream he must surely have had this lesson in mind. From its garish, clashing colors; through its vertiginous perspective sucking the viewer into a vortex; to the nightmarish, skull-faced figure pressed against the picture plane – The Scream is a work which seeks to shock through every possible means. And today, incredibly, despite its celebrity and familiarity, that power remains undiminished.
In the 1889 text known as the "Saint-Cloud Manifesto", Munch described his ambitions for a deeply personal yet universal art which would provide a secular modern alternative to the grand manner:
I thought I should make something – I felt it would be so easy – it would take form under my hands like magic.
Then people would see!
...People would understand the significance, the power of it. They would remove their hats like they do in church.
There would be pictures of real people who breathe, suffer, feel and love.
I felt impelled – it would be easy.
(E. Munch, written in 1889, reprinted in Sue Prideaux, Edvard Munch, Behind the Scream, New Haven & London, 2005, p. 120)
In The Scream, Munch succeeded in creating an archetype which would touch viewers across continents and centuries. If its early fame owed much to the hundred-or-so lithographs Munch produced, when critical reception tended to focus on psychoanalysis and philosophy, it was the unfurling of twentieth-century history which secured the global profile the picture enjoys today. Executed on the cusp of the most violent century in history, The Scream turned out to be extraordinarily prescient. After World War II and the Holocaust, the picture looked different: the horror it embodies was intensified and The Scream became the defining image of Existentialism. Francis Bacon's Screaming Popes amplified Munch's tortured, mute "O" for a new generation (fig. 15). Since then its popularity has only grown, and during periods of cultural anxiety it has become the universal symbol of anguish (in March 1961, for instance, Time magazine made The Scream the cover of its "Guilt and Anxiety" issue). By the time Andy Warhol made his Screams in the 1980s the picture had transcended definitively its fine art origins to become the property of pop culture, alongside Coke bottles, Campbell's soup cans, Elvis and Liz Taylor (fig. 16).
Thefts of The Scream from two Norwegian museums in 1994 and 2004 underlined the potency of the image. Front-page media coverage around the world, ironically, only added further to the work's celebrity. Thankfully both pictures were recovered but the global unease their respective disappearances prompted speaks loudly of the The Scream's significance in our culture. Munch – ever reticent – was careful never to explain The Scream. Part of its appeal, surely, is that the picture is irreducible to any single reading – in fact, it can probably sustain an infinite number of interpretations. What is beyond question, however, is that Munch created from his Ekeberg epiphany an unforgettable image of horror and pathos which will continue to fascinate for centuries to come.
Please refer to Sotheby's catalogue devoted to The Scream for new essays by Adam Gopnik, Sue Prideaux, Reinhold Heller and Philip Hook. We are grateful to each for their kind assistance in presenting this picture.
Pastel on board in the original frame
Berlin, Akademie der Künste, Frühjahrsausstellung, 1923 Mannheim, Kunsthalle Mannheim, Edvard Munch: Gemälde und Graphik, 1926-27, no. 80a Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Edvard Munch, 1927, no. 54 Chemnitz, Kunsthütte zu Chemnitz, Ausstellung Edvard Munch, 1929, no. 10 Leipzig, Leipziger Kunstverein, Edvard Munch, 1929-30, no. 7 Hamburg, Hamburger Kunstverein, 1930 Berlin, Nationalgalerie, Galerie Lebenden, on loan with the permanent collection until June 12, 1933 Amsterdam, Kunsthandel J. Goudstikker N.V., Tentoonstellung van Moderne Kunst, 1933, no. 42, illustrated in the catalogue Oslo, Kunstnerforbundet, Munch-bilder i privat eie, 1958, no. 48 (dated circa 1893) Kiel, Kunsthalle zu Kiel, Edvard Munch, Gemälde und Zeichnungen aus einer norwegischen Privatsammlung, 1979, no. 6, illustrated in color on the cover of the catalogue Washington, D.C., The National Gallery of Art, on temporary loan 1990-91
32 by 23 1/4 in. 79 by 59 cm
Reinhold Heller, Munch, The Scream, London, 1973, illustrated p. 118
Ragna Stang, Edvard Munch, The Man and the Artist, London, 1979, mentioned p. 90, footnote 107
Jan Kneher, Edvard Munch in seinen Ausstellungen zwischen 1892 und 1912, Worms, 1994, no. 106, listed p. 358
Edvard Munch in Chemnitz (exhibition catalogue), Chemnitz, Kunstsammlungen, 1999-2000, illustrated p. 230
Gerd Woll, Edvard Munch, Complete Paintings, Catalogue Raisonné, 1880-1897, vol I, Munich, 2008, no. 372, illustrated p. 359
Arthur von Franquet, Braunschweig (acquired in 1895)
Hugo Simon, Berlin and Paris (acquired by 1926)
Kunsthandel J. Goudstikker NV., Amsterdam (on consignment for sale from Hugo Simon, by October, 1933)
Kunsthaus Zürich (on deposit from Hugo Simon, by December, 1936)
M. Molvidson, Konst- & Antikvitetshandel, Stockholm (on consignment for sale from Hugo Simon, January, 1937)
Thomas Olsen, Oslo (acquired from the above circa 1937)
Thence by descent