Edvard Munch’s The Scream is a composition of four pieces, two done with paint and the other two in pastels. Munch, an Expressionist artist, gave these works the German name Der Schrel der Natur or The Scream of Nature, and show a figure with an agonized expression against a landscape with a tumultuous orange sky, while two figures in the background walk on oblivious to the active environment around them. A lithographic stone of the image existed for Munch to make prints; approximately four dozen were made, and several of those prints survive to this day.
There’s speculation among art historians about Munch’s inspiration for The Scream, one example being Munch observing ancient mummies while visiting museums. According to Munch himself, however, the initial inspiration behind The Scream was due to an experience he had while out with friends. In a diary entry on January 22, 1892, he wrote:
“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.”
Comparisons have been made between the figure in The Scream and that of patients suffering from depersonalization disorder and trigeminal neuralgia, or facial pain.
The works are popular for a number of reasons, aside from their aesthetic: while three of the four versions reside in the National Gallery and the Munch Museum (both in Oslo, Norway), the fourth was sold at Sotherby’s Impressionist and Modern Art auction at around $120 million, making it the fourth highest price paid for a painting at auction. Financier Leon Black won the painting for an outstanding $119,922,600 on May 2, 2012, and the work was shown in New York’s Museum of Modern Art between late 2012 and early 2013.
The Scream has also been the target of art theft: on February 12, 1994, the day the 1994 Winter Olympics opened in Lillehammer, a version residing in the National Gallery was stolen and recovered within several months. Coincidentally, one of the men accused in the heist, Päl Enger, was convicted in 1988 of stealing Vampire, another Munch piece. A decade later, on August 22, 2004, both a version of The Scream and Madonna were lifted from the Munch Museum, but wouldn’t be recovered for two years. While the 1994 theft did not result in any damage to the work, the pieces stolen in 2004 suffered minor damage and required restoration.
Throughout popular culture, The Scream has been parodied, imitated, remixed and copied. It’s seen its fair share of interpretations, from covers of best-selling books such as The Primal Scream by Arthur Kanov to the expression Kevin MacAllister makes in the promotional poster of Home Alone. The Scream has been referenced in advertisements, cartoons, television shows and films. If you’re a fan of either Doctor Who or the Scream franchise, you’ll notice that both the Ghostface mask (Scream) and The Silence (Doctor Who) have physical similarities to the figure in The Scream. If you express yourself frequently through GIFs or emojis, surely the 😱 emoji is familiar.
From Edvard’s traumatic experience to theft to the massive impression on pop culture, The Scream has stood the test of time. It continues to inspire artists, creatives, and fans around the world.