Daily Dose of Europe: Munch’s The Scream

I can’t help but see world events through the lens of Europe. And with all of the turmoil in our world recently, I keep flashing on a universal image of anguish: Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

On a lonely bridge, an emaciated figure (man? woman? fetus?) claps his hands to his face, opens his mouth and eyes wide, and…screams. The sound swirls up through his whole body and bleeds out his terrified skull, echoing until it melts into a blood-red sky. We can “hear” this soundless scream in the wavy lines that oscillate like sound waves.

In this famous work, Edvard Munch captured the anxiety of modern life. In fact, it’s angst literally personified.

While some see this as a man screaming, others think he’s covering his ears to avoid hearing a scream. Or it’s both, like hearing some infernal, never-ending noise — the voices in your head — until you just want to scream.

Munch (pronounced “moonk”) said it was inspired by an actual event. While walking with friends, he was suddenly overcome with the sensation that all of nature was forever screaming. In the painting, the two other men walk on, seemingly oblivious to the noise only he can hear. Munch communicated this inner sensation with snaking lines and shrieking colors. He enhanced the thick soup of paint by mixing in pastels.

Norway’s long, dark winters and social isolation have produced many gloomy artists, but none gloomier than Munch. Many see the screaming figure as autobiographical. It’s the scream of a man who’d seen his mother and sister die young, failed in love, drank too much, flew into rages, heard voices in his head, failed in the art world, and ended up living alone surrounded only by his “children” — hundreds of unsold paintings.

The Scream is actually quite different from Munch’s other work, where he followed traditional Nordic themes of doom and gloom in a realistic style. Like the Norwegian Romantics, he saw nature as charged from within by an awe-inspiring life force.

But The Scream was groundbreaking. Where others captured terror on canvas with realistically gruesome events (hunger, disease, murder), Munch did it by distorting an everyday scene. He bends and twists it into a landscape of unexplained terror. Any sense of normal 3-D depth created by the bridge gets compressed into a claustrophobic wall of swirling colors.

Just five years after painting The Scream, Munch suffered a nervous breakdown and entered a mental clinic. He emerged less troubled…and less creative. His later paintings were brighter, but less daring. He labeled The Scream “the work of a madman.”

But this innovative painting rippled out, like the echoes of a scream. By fusing the bold colors of Fauvism, the curved lines of Art Nouveau, and the emotional intensity of Van Gogh, Munch had pointed the way to a new style — Expressionism. Later artists used such lurid colors, distorted figures, and troubled imagery to “express” their inner turmoil and the angst of the modern world.

The Scream even entered pop culture. The horrified face was used in ads, Halloween masks, and emojis. In many ways, we have Munch to thank for the end of pretty, realistic paintings, and the emergence of the distorted, confrontational, and often ugly style we call modern art.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the full-color coffee-table book Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe.