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Note Book

Winter 2005 • Volume 11, Issue 1

The Scream by Edvard MunchIn light of the recent theft from a Norway museum of Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting, The Scream, we posed these questions to professors in the Art Department:

What is the significance of The Scream from an art historical perspective? What is the value of classic artwork in today’s society?


Dr. Sarah Glover
assistant professor of art

Munch’s use of vibrant color, expressive line, and distorted form transformed the act of seeing into one of feeling. Freed from the traditional boundaries of narrative, The Scream’s full force arises, not simply from the subjects in the painting, but from the vicious tonalities and sweeping lines that define the tortured figure in the foreground as they simultaneously envelop and suffocate him.

Doctor Sarah CloverThe intense emotional content of Munch’s work, and the visually direct way this content is communicated, paved the way for the Expressionist painters of the early 20th century. The work also solidified the trend in interpreting painting as autobiographical. The cathartic qualities of Munch’s work seem to offer a glimpse into the mind of the artist. This aspect of his work is often used to support the rather tired, but seemingly much loved, notion of artists as outsiders, as tormented individuals. Although The Scream was, for Munch, intensely personal, the anxiety and anguish it conveys is universal.

It is the painting’s accessibility, its universal qualities, that makes it a “classic” work. This status is proclaimed in the image’s proliferation. Munch himself made many versions of The Scream, in paint and print. Andy Warhol replicated the image countless times in an attempt to both comment upon, and deflate, its visual impact. The reproductions of Munch’s image have increased in recent decades. The painting’s open-mouthed figure now gapes at us from coffee mugs and t-shirts. The anguished form is sold as an inflatable doll, an object which, the buyer is assured, will make “a great addition to any college dorm room.” It would be easy to condemn this treatment of Munch’s image, but, in many ways, the commercialization of The Scream is a testament to its iconic power. Although the kitschy versions of Munch’s image are more comical than horrifying, they demonstrate an attempt to distance ourselves, through laughter, from the painting’s brutally direct critique of humankind’s failings.

Like most masterpieces, The Scream’s imagery continues to have meaning, despite being removed from its original visual and historical context. Today the image is still effective as it can serve, not merely as a window into Munch’s thoughts, but as a reflection of our own culture of fear.

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Professor Harold Linton
chair, department of art

So much has already been written on Edvard Munch and the recent theft of one of his works from a Norwegian collection. Classic works of art and design such as The Scream by Munch possess many lessons for society and those who take the time to observe great art.

Professor Harold LintonArt is created from judgment and not strictly rules. It teaches us about forming opinions and making qualitative relationships and therefore about understanding our own feelings and becoming aware that there are more than one set of solutions to a problem and more than one answer to a question. Munch created several interpretations of this scene in the form of paintings, drawings, and printmaking. Each of these variant compositions reflect research into his own feelings and his reactions to landscape-horizon transformed by a fiery red light of vast proportion that he experienced on this day.

The most famous version of The Scream was painted in 1893 as part of The Frieze of Life, a group of works derived by Munch’s personal experiences, including the deaths of his mother in 1868 and his sister in 1877. These works were created in the 1890s, but have established origins in earlier decades.

For those who have ever wondered why the sky was a lurid red in The Scream – Edvard Munch’s painting of modern angst – astronomers have an answer. They blame it on a volcanic eruption halfway around the world. An analysis of the phenomenon that contributed to the creation of the painting was first published in Sky and Telescope journal. The article pinpointed the location in Norway where Munch and his friends were walking when the artist saw the blood-red sky depicted in the 1893 painting and offered the following explanation for why the sky seemed to be aflame.

Astronomers determined that debris thrown into the atmosphere by the great eruption at the island of Krakatoa, in modern Indonesia, created vivid red twilights in Europe from November 1883 through February 1884. The phenomenon was widely seen and reported in local newspapers. Astronomers suggest that Munch drew his inspiration for the sky in the painting from these volcanic twilights, and not strictly from his own imagination. What better source for inspiration, however, than that of extraordinary events by Mother Nature. The dramatic phenomenon of such great magnitude that followed the eruption was experienced for months around the world.

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