In this post, I will be taking a closer look at The Scream by Edvard Munch, which features a dramatic display of swirling lines, distorted forms and exaggerated colors.
Here are some of the key facts about The Scream:
- The original was painted in 1893 using oil, tempera, and pastel on cardboard. There are four other versions: the pastel version (1893); the lithograph version (1893), the second pastel version (1895) and the tempera version (1910). These are pictured below:
- In 2012, the second pastel version (1895) sold for around $119 million at Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art auction, making it one of the most expensive paintings ever sold (you can see a list of the most expensive paintings ever sold here).
- It was painted during the Symbolism movement. The use of color and distorted forms in the painting also inspired the Expressionism movement.
- The painting is based on a fjord overlooking Oslo. You can see a photo of the location here.
- The painting is commonly known as The Scream, but it also goes by Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature) in German, or Skrik (The Shriek) in Norwegian.
- Based on historical analysis, Munch used pigments including cadmium yellow, vermilion, ultramarine blue and viridian.
- He wrote about his inspiration for the painting in a note titled Nice 22 January 1892:
"I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature."
- Munch was tormented by depression, sadness and illness during his lifetime, so The Scream may be an insight into his own state of mind.
For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art.” Edvard Munch
- In 1994, the painting was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo. The theaves left a note which read, "Thanks for the poor security". The painting ended up being recovered undamaged in 1994. Then in 2004, the 1910 version was stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo. That painting was also recovered with less-than-expected damage in 2006.
- If you look closely, you will see a chalky, white mark on the right-hand side of the ghoulish figure (pictured below). Research conducted by the University of Antwerp in Belgium suggests this is wax which might have fallen on the painting from burning candles in Munch's studio (this article has more information on this).
Swirling Lines and Distorted Forms
Munch made use of swirling lines to create a sense of movement, much like Vincent van Gogh did in The Starry Night. Swirling lines were used for the surrounding nature and also the distorted figure. The bridge, the two other figures on the left-hand side and the distant boats in the water are painted with rigid lines and shapes. This may represent a contrast between nature and the civilization being forced upon it.
The two figures on the left-hand side are simple and abstract, but not really distorted like the main figure. This really alienates the main figure, which was painted with elongated hands, a curving body and primitive facial features.
Munch used color in this painting mostly to convey emotion and drama. He really pushed the colors in the direction of his idea, rather than to paint realistically.
There is a powerful contrast between exaggerated reds and oranges used for the sunset in the background, and the dull blues, greens, purples and grays used for everything else.
Munch wrote the following about the painting and the sky, which explains his use of color:
"One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream."
The use of color contrast in this painting works two ways: to show the intensity of the "blood red" sunset in the background and the drama of the ghoulish figure on the bridge. Both of these extremes need each other to work effectively in the painting; they complement each other like red complements green.
The ghoulish figure was painted with sickly colors: dull yellows, blues, and purples. Dark and light accents painted over the top hint at the "screaming" expression of the figure. No attention was given by Munch to paint this figure with any sense of realism. It is likely this was a figure of Munch's own tormented mind.
Whilst the painting appears relatively simple, there is a clever contrast between two pairs of complementary colors: red and green, and orange and blue. This adds a subtle level of complexity and some interesting color relationships to the painting.
The "blood" red in the sky appears to be the strongest color, which contrasts against the very weak green for the land.
The orange is also intense, but it is competing for attention with the blue for the land and water (which is much stronger than the green).
(You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. It will help you understand and use color more effectively in painting.)
- Color can be a powerful tool for depicting drama and emotion. Think about what your big idea is for your painting and try to push your colors in that direction. If you are painting a vivid sunset, then consider making your colors even more warm and intense than they actually are.
- Sometimes, it can be effective to distort the form of your subject in favor of your overall idea, rather than painting the subject realistically.
- Contrast is everything in art. In this painting, Munch relied on contrasting colors, lines, shapes and forms.
- If you want to explore a certain composition further, try using different mediums as Munch did with his pastel, lithograph and tempera versions. You may find that different mediums allow you to capture different aspects or characteristics of a subject.