“The Scream” is an arguably beautiful and famous painting by Edvard Munch with a colourful and controversial history. It is one of the world’s most expensive works of art, and there have been several attempts to steal one or another of the four versions Munch painted. However, “The Scream” is an icon of modern art due to the mental anguish of the character it so powerfully portrays, evoking intense psychological reactions of sympathy, empathy, or curiosity from the viewer.
The anguish evident in the subject is often somewhat superficially attributed to the delicate state of mind of the painter, with many biographies portraying Munch as a troubled soul prone to the influence of alcohol and depression. The experience that inspired “The Scream” is often attributed to a mental health crisis that we would colloquially describe as a “panic attack”.
Regarding his experience, Munch wrote:
I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish-black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous infinite Scream of nature.
Some attribute this reaction to the psychological consequences of a lifetime of personal hardship, grief, and suffering, resulting in an intense sensitivity to the cruelness of life. Others cite the cause of his malaise to the proximity of the mental asylum where his sister was hospitalised. Or perhaps, they suggest, he reacted to the distress of animals dying in a nearby slaughterhouse.
However, such populist critiques of this artwork overlook the artist’s own words, which convey a pragmatic and deeply spiritual perspective on life. Considering Munch’s comments about the painting and his other philosophical and metaphysical insights, we could conclude he was struck by the juxtaposition of the intrinsic natural beauty of the sunset and his feelings of trepidation about the transience of life.
The original title of Munch’s work was “Der Schrei der Natur,” which translates into English as “The Scream of Nature.” It may have been an unspeakable loneliness and paralytic fear that struck Munch as he recognised in the sunset’s dramatic colours and surreal aura the unfathomable depths of nature and his infinitesimal place in the All. Or perhaps “the enormous infinite scream of nature” alludes to the cry of pain and distress emanating from every element in the universe as it endures incessant change in its endless cycles of birth, life and death. Or perhaps Munch was sensitive to nature’s suffering as it succumbs to humankind’s selfish onslaught of exploitation?
In Munch’s painting, we can undoubtedly glimpse the expression of a consciousness that perceives, in his own words, that
Nature is not only all that is visible to the eye… it also includes the inner pictures of the soul.
Perhaps, in this traumatic moment, nature’s “enormous infinite scream” resonates with his intense inner yearning for reconciliation and reunification with the universe surrounding and permeating him.
The notion of a higher purpose in painting “The Scream” is supported by Munch’s admission that
My art is really a voluntary confession and an attempt to explain to myself my relationship with life—it is, therefore, actually a sort of egoism, but I am constantly hoping that through this I can help others achieve clarity.
In this context, we could consider that Munch intended to invite the sensitive viewer to look at “The Scream” as if into a mirror, to consider just how far we fall short of being conscious of our place in the All. Or how far we have fallen from a conscious awareness of the interconnectedness we share with all nature and the Spirit permeating us.
Therefore, the anguish expressed in “The Scream” is a self-awareness not of a madman but of an ordinary human being coming in an extraordinary way to the inevitable realisation of his mortality. And at the same time, also to the immortality of the true Self within him. Through “The Scream”, Munch challenges us to question how open we are to the reality of our life. Do we also feel that inner turmoil or hear that heart-rending, infinite scream of nature calling us to let go of all our delusions, and confront the unreality of our transient existence?
Indeed, the universal appeal of “The Scream” suggests that Munch achieved his goal of painting a
study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self.
But the remarkable impression this simple yet profoundly disconcerting painting has on so many people surely indicates something more than simple aesthetics. As Munch said,
In my art I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.
In doing so, he attempts to convey something of another dimension, penetrating beyond the ego to touch the heart of our being.
The insights Munch shares through his words and paintings are not madness, delusion, or anxiety to those who have become sensitive to the call of this inner disquiet. They are prerequisites for the inner recognition of the reality of our existence and our delusion of individualism. They are the keys to our release from this dis-ease, from our separation of body and soul.
When we experience this as an inner awakening, we see the delusion of our attempts to capture eternity in time. We recognise the ultimate futility of our materialism, and then we can say with Munch:
From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.
 Eggum, Arne (1984). Munch, Edvard (ed.). Edvard Munch: Paintings, Sketches, and Studies. New York, NY, C.N. Potter. p. 305. ISBN 0-517-55617-0
 Prideaux, Sue (2005). Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12401-9