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Why Munch’s the Scream Isn’t Actually Screaming

We examine the celebrated masterpiece’s many meanings.

The Telegraph

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Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'

Wikimedia Commons

We all know The Scream – or we think we do. Boiling sea beneath blood-red sky. A figure – genderless, featureless, alone on a precipice – confronts us with an anguished face as it covers its ears with formless hands.

It is a skull, or perhaps a foetus. Its body is contorted, as if without bone and muscle, and it appears to be undulating into the sky. Two figures walk away, oblivious as the world dissolves into chaos.

Edvard Munch’s timeless representation of human terror, created at the birth of modernism in Europe, made its long-awaited return to Norway’s National Museum in 2022, after more than three years in storage. This is the oldest of several Screams, painted in 1893. Norway’s most revered painter reworked it many times (one is in the nearby Munch Museum; another sold at auction for nearly $120 million in 2012 (then a record) and in numerous lithographs. In earlier versions, the figure is a well-dressed man gazing to sea. But this is The Scream you probably know.

It is the one on which Munch dripped candle wax, possibly left out in the garden and on which he scribbled: “Could only have been painted by a madman.” It was stolen then returned in a gallery raid in 1994, and is reproduced on endless Munch merchandise, from women’s dresses to babies’ bibs to desktop inflatables – and, of course, emojis.

The Scream has seeped into pop culture and sits deep in our collective psyche. Even if you have never heard of Munch or seen the artwork in the flesh, you will know and understand its tortured figure.

We use it ironically, as visual shorthand for exasperation, perhaps anxiety. Why does it resonate so deeply? Thierry Ford, a conservator at the National Museum, says we project whatever we want on to Munch’s figure. “There is no right or wrong way to interpret it – it’s so versatile.”

And, according to curator Vibeke Waallann Hansen: “It’s so radical and communicative – everyone of any culture, even a child, can understand it, even if people interpret it differently.”

I travelled to Oslo for a preview to see for myself. Munch’s masterpiece is different from reproductions – the brushstrokes are more dynamic, the colours of its tempera and pastel are more luminous than on the umbrellas and tote bags in the gift shop. The figure’s expression seems to be in shock, not anxious; its eyes are blank crosses that lock into my gaze. Something unseen appears to be clutching its shoulder; the perspective is dizzying. I notice gouges on the surface. It is as if The Scream is forever shifting, familiar yet unknowable. I must be peering too closely because a guard rushes over to ask me to stand back.

Unlike Mona Lisa, which once had cake thrown at its protective glass in a bizarre climate protest, the Scream is not alone in a room. It is hung with other Munch pieces (intentional on the part of the curators: the artist conceived it as part of a series depicting stages of love). There are no ropes, glass sheets or electronic alarms. Only a few visitors can enter at one time. Hansen describes it as “a non-selfie experience”.

The circumstances in which Munch worked on it give more clues to its resonance. He was nearly 30, and he knew The Scream was special. His life before had been ravaged by madness, sickness and death. His mother and sister died of tuberculosis; his father was dogged by depression. Another sister became schizophrenic. Munch turned to drawing to keep himself occupied, but his pious father gave him no support and considered an artist’s profession unholy.

In 1889, he escaped to Paris, where he encountered the post-impressionists: Van Gogh’s expressive and emotional brushwork; Gaugin’s heavy, simplified outlines and contours. He took them, and injected his own sense of northern European melancholy, developing a new style of painting that reflected interior life rather than the physical world.

Four years later, in 1893, he painted The Scream that’s in Oslo’s National Museum, while living in Berlin, where an exhibition of his work a year earlier had caused a great commotion and established him as a pioneering artist.

Hansen points out that The Scream is not screaming; that was not Munch’s intention. He left several poems, notes and diary entries in which he described the circumstances behind the image, including this diary entry written in 1892: “I was walking along the road with two friends – then the sun went (I went) down. Suddenly the sky turned blood-red and I felt a breath of melancholy and an exhausting pain under my heart – I paused, leaning against a fence, tired to death. Above the blue-black fjord and city there was blood in tongues of fire. My friends went on and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and felt that a great, infinite scream went through nature.”

The scream is emitted by an outside force; the figure covers his ears because he cannot bear the intensity. Hansen suggests a second interpretation: “The scream is the world surrounding you. You are afraid that you cannot cope with social relations, with love. Munch first showed it in a series called the Paintings of Love – and it was about love and desire.”

At the time of The Scream's return to the National Museum, across Oslo harbour, Munch superfan Tracey Emin is in town to unveil her bronze sculpture, The Mother, outside the Munch Museum. Later, she talks about her fascination with The Scream. “It’s like some kind of sperm-like, unborn presence that is just within the ether,” she says. “It’s not a ghost, not a spirit. It’s something half there, and half in another world.”

She points out its timelessness: “I went to Egypt, to the Valley of the Kings, where there’s a foetus that would have become a king. And I said, ‘Oh my God, it’s just like The Scream!’”

From foetuses to emojis. The “Face Screaming in Fear” was added to platforms in 2010 – inspired by both Munch’s image and characters in Japanese anime – and has been used in millions of digital messages ever since, whether to add feeling to a photograph of a positive lateral flow test, or to punctuate a picture of a toddler’s chocolate-smeared face. It’s a joke, to convey despair at mundane inconveniences.

Has this new digital life reduced Munch’s existential cry to glibness? Alisa Freedman, professor of cultural studies at the University of Oregon, doesn’t think so. “People still respect and know its culture, they know the work,” she says. But now, like other emojis, it has a new role helping humans to communicate. “The Scream has become social glue,” she says.

In any case, we are using it less. According to Unicode, the official body in charge of emojis, the screaming face is the 55th most-used icon, and fell in global rankings between 2019 and 2021. Freedman says others are taking its place: the skull is increasingly used to convey dying of shock or laughter.

Nevertheless, Emin fears The Scream has lost some of its power. “I went to the museum shop and there were nail files with The Scream, so when you file your nails it goes, ‘Wheeee!’ I thought, ‘That’s so bad. What would Munch have said?’”

I think about Emin’s encounter with a Scream-like mummified foetus, and she’s right. Once you start looking, you see The Scream everywhere. I see it in 5,000-year-old carved mace heads at the British Museum, screaming silently for millennia, and again at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in Somerset, where a selection of Henry Moore’s found objects is on show. They include a piece of beach detritus – a wooden disc with three holes, some kind of winding mechanism. Moore cast it in bronze in the mid-20th century. It looks like The Scream. He must have known.

And I see it in the mask worn by the villain in Scream, Wes Craven’s 1990s classic shlock-horror film. I realise why Munch’s masterpiece resonates. It is just an iteration. The Scream has always existed, and it always will.

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This post originally appeared on The Telegraph and was published June 10, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.