9. Resonant Colour

      Interpretations of The Scream Across Time






I went along the road with two friends-
The sun set
Suddenly the sky became blood—and I felt the breath of
A tearing pain beneath my heart
I stopped—leaned against the fence—deathly tired
Clouds over the fjord of blood dripped reeking with blood
My friends went on but I just stood trembling with an open
in my breast trembling with anxiety I heard a huge
scream pass through nature.
-from Edvard Munch’s journal (qtd. in Prideaux 41)


Munch’s description of the event that inspired him to create the iconic The Scream (1893) (fig. 9.1) is repeated frequently in the texts of his commentators. But Sue Prideaux also includes the words he scribbled over as he struggled to put this visceral experience to words. Even as Munch fought to harness his experience with vocabulary, he managed to successfully channel it into a work of art so effective that it almost seems to create sounds. Words do not seem adequate to convey the enormous pathos manifest in the image he created in response to his experience on the fjord. Still, art historians and critics of Munch have been struggling to do so since the painting’s creation in 1893, and continue to do so today. Some have presented startling theories, which will be explored in the next few paragraphs.

In Das Werk des Edvard Munch (1892), Stanislaw Przybyszewski, a contemporary and friend of the artist, interprets The Scream as manifestation of sexual frustrations (Dittman 91). Przybyszewski’s sentiments are reinforced by August Strindberg, another of Munch’s friends, who writes that the painted figure’s "sexuality has been drained from him, and now he shrieks out into all nature for a new revelation" (qtd. in Dittman 91). Both Strindberg and Przybyszewski reduce The Scream to a mere exploration of erotic concerns, a depiction of the power struggle between sexual urges and the mind. As art viewers, Przbyszewski and Strindberg cannot possibly be labeled as disinterested in that they make value judgments of the painting based on both their own sexual identities and also their preconceived notions of the artist’s motivations. In a Kantian sense, the patriarchal reading of this response is not disinterested, it presupposes that the viewer knows that its artist is a man, and thus possesses a priori knowledge that affects the aesthetic response.

So too, a reading of The Scream is merely based on Munch’s notorious frustrations with women is problematic. For example, Alexander Baumgarten (84–5) holds that aesthetic form is the most important factor in the reading of a work of art. I am inclined to ultimately agree with his side of the polemic in this instance, since it is impossible to discern whether the central figure in The Scream is a man or a woman. Munch was a gifted painter. A quick survey of his other works makes it clear that he could (and did) paint sex-specific bodies. However, the Screamer’s shape, while clearly human, lacks gendered features of any kind. As a woman, I can step into its shoes, even though it was painted by a man as a self-portrait.

The impressions of Munch’s troubled life are evident in the landscape and figures of this painting, which seem to scream louder than any historical narrative could. So despite the obvious bias and sexism in Przbyszewski and Strindberg’s arguments, I cannot discount their point entirely. The Scream takes place within a pulsating, charged landscape that Munch himself describes as swirling with blood (Prideaux 41). Amidst the boiling crimson stands a lone figure, its gaping mouth wide open. It screeches in my direction with the whole of its being, but no sounds reach my ear. For all its efforts, the figure is essentially impotent. For these reasons, I can understand why Strindberg and Przybyszewski would attribute sexual connotations to The Scream.

But perhaps the viewer’s response to the painting cannot be limited absolutely to either aesthetics or preconceived knowledge. Clive Bell, in his Aesthetic Hypothesis (15–23), sympathizes with Baumgarten’s line of reasoning in claiming that an aesthetic sensation is produced by significant form (or the quality that makes something art). But his argument is also reminiscent of Kant’s notion that the experience of seeing art is indefinable, though it clearly involves a judgment of taste. Bell occupies an ambiguous space because he cannot locate objective criteria with which to define and distinguish an aesthetic experience. Though I cannot isolate each variable, Munch has made choices within his composition that speak to the unleashing of raw urges, which the viewer could read as sexual. The fact that Przbyszewski and Strindberg saw The Scream in sexual terms and ascribed distinctly masculine characteristics to the figure speaks to Laura Brandon’s theory that constantly evolving social ideals, beliefs and interests invoke different associations and thus evoke different appreciations of historical art (Brandon 76).

In Evening, or Jealousy (1891), Christian Krohg, another contemporary of Munch, responds to the raw power of the work in musical, rather than sexual terms. He uses the phrase “resonant colour” (213) to describe the work, saying that “perhaps this borders on music rather than painting, but as such it is brilliant. Munch deserves a civil list grant as a composer" (Ibid.). Krohg’s sentiment has persisted in modern scholarship. In fact, Elizabeth Prelinger (2000) devotes an entire essay to the dissemination of The Scream as it relates to romantic music theory. She compares The Scream to the decorative motif of the arabesque – the complex joining of organic forms to create unity in art, also used to describe a fanciful piano piece. Furthermore, she writes that The Scream engages with intricate theories pertaining to the relationship between art and music in an unprecedented way.

Prelinger writes that theories about this relationship were “formulated by German idealist philosophers and artists at the beginning of the nineteenth century and assimilated at the fin de siècle by the French Symbologists” (211). Drawing on their discourse, she claims that Munch has painted a century’s worth of philosophical and artistic discussion. For Prelinger, his exceptional synthesis of formal and philosophical contents effectively ended nineteenth century Romanticism and signaled the beginning of twentieth-century modernism (211–212). She agrees with the sentiment expressed in Clement Greenberg’s 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (211–216) that there exist works of indisputable greatness (so-called “high art”) which will always stand out, regardless of changing interests and aesthetics over time.

In this same vein of thinking, Heinrich Wölfflin (115–26) might argue that The Scream possesses ground-breaking attributes, thus setting it apart from Romantic era artwork. For example, the attention to detail necessary to create naturalistic scenery is no longer an issue. Unity becomes paramount; every aspect of the work – colour, line, form – points the eye towards the all-encompassing scream. The subject also shifts from absolute clarity to relative clarity, albeit in a different sense than Wölfflin might have meant.  He discusses how painters began to sacrifice the perfect brush stroke for the sake of the general clarity of a piece. This tradeoff resulted in more painterly strokes and an image that seemed less distinct at close distances. In the same way, Munch sacrificed many of the physical details in The Scream to create a larger truth – one dependent on the recreation of an emotional, rather than physical, state.

Prelinger’s theory calls to mind Aruthur Danto and Immanuel Kant, who both see the “creative genius” as an artist who changes aesthetic rules by breaking them, and defines himself or herself in opposition to the status quo. Her correlation of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (circa 1818) (fig. 9.2) with The Scream struck a chord with me. She writes that both paintings depict a halted traveler experiencing an epiphany in the midst of nature, but that The Scream “is not an image of lyrical harmony but rather a shriek, an atonal noise, which subverts the meditative calm of romantic landscapes” (218). According to Prelinger, Munch further subverts the Romantic ideal through the creation of a symbolic, cohesive “landscape hieroglyph” (Ibid.) using his own distinct visual language.

This comparison naturally brings me to a discussion of intertextuality (Kristeva 1980). It seems obvious that there are different forms of reference taking place here - between Wanderer above the Sea of Fog and The Scream, as well as between two artistic modes of expression, music and painting. The departure from romanticism, a pivotal moment in art history illustrated by The Scream in juxtaposition with Wanderer, so firmly argued by Prelinger, might present a problem for Andreas Huyssen (211–216). He sees it as problematic that many theorists (like Greenberg and Danto) promote dichotomies of this sort. He argues that the connections between various art forms are too complex to be sorted into binary “before” and “after” categories. My sense is that Huyssen suspects that Prelinger might have pushed an important art historical narrative to the sideline in her haste to describe The Scream as revolutionary. Prelinger’s description of the similarities between the two works is limited to one sentence, which fails to mention their similar emotional tone of overwhelming isolation.

The reading that most influenced my understanding of The Scream was Frederich Jameson’s In the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1992). The author argues that The Scream “subtly but elaborately deconstructs its own aesthetic of expression, all while remaining imprisoned within it” (14). Jameson’s assessment references how the painting underlines its own failure to enter the realm of the sonorous. It cannot possibly create the sound it strives towards; it is trapped within the confines of its own medium. In addition, Jameson deftly points out that the figure has no ears. He also reads sound into the painting’s formal elements, writing of the circular forms moving towards the “even more absent experience of an atrocious solitude and anxiety which The Scream was to express” (14). For Jameson, these circles create a visible vibration as though they were ripples on water. The circles fan out from the central figure and become the “geography of a universe in which pain itself now speaks and vibrates through the material sunset and landscape” (Ibid.).

Jameson deconstructs the aesthetics of expression which he claims have dominated “high modernism” and have disappeared in the world of the post-modern. Jameson locates conflict in The Scream in terms of “outside” and “inside,” paying close attention to how desperate and dramatic emotion is externalized through a cry or a gesture that produces catharsis (11–12). Jameson frequently returns to the iconography of “confinement” and being “trapped” in The Scream. He sees the painting as self-contained – a closed realm that restricts the figure as though it were in a prison cell. He also makes an interesting comparison between Munch’s figure and the post-modern figure, saying that “liberation from the older anomie of the centered subject may also mean, not merely a liberation from anxiety, but a liberation from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling” (15). In this sense, his argument is reminiscent of Hegelian theory, which sees art in a linear trajectory at the end of which it will no longer be necessary for spiritual purposes. Rather than viewing post-modern art as a philosophical space in which anything goes, Jameson sees it as the ultimate amalgamation of the self into the whole, where real feeling is no longer possible and art is no longer necessary to society. For Jameson, art is destined to become obsolete.

David Loshak (1989) spends a good deal of time carefully deconstructing the work visually without much concern for its historical context. In contrast to Jameson, who sees the central figure as causing ripple effects throughout its surroundings, Loshak sees the figure as being absorbed into the flow of landscape and sky, in danger of being flattened into the two-dimensional backdrop. For Loshak, the conflict resides in the conversation between the “two-dimensional 'organic' curvilinearity” of the landscape and the “three-dimensional 'inorganic' rectilinearity” (274) of the figure’s face. The contrast between the two creates friction and balances Munch’s design. . For him, the chief function of this contrast between the flat background and the 3-D “realness” of the figure serves to preserve objective truth, to remind the viewer that this painting refers to an incident which took place in actuality (274). Loshak posits that perspective serves to narrate time in The Scream. Movement implied by the figures’ positions on the fjord alludes to the passage of time.

Loshak presupposes that the viewer will intuitively estimate the time required for figures to move through the painting. In the context of The Scream, this is meant to suggest that there is a true story being told (274). This sentiment reminds me of Danto’s (33-34) concept of the “Imitation Theory of Art,” in which art seeks to reproduce visual scenes, and the “Reality Theory of Art,” in which art seeks to expose a greater moral or inner “Truth.” The Scream is remarkable for its synthesis of both principles. Clearly, it loosely imitates forms drawn from the tangible world, such as the human body (in particular the mouth), clothing, and natural scenery in perspective. But the painting is infused with a greater sense of meaning because it extends beyond its materiality into an inventive, artistic space. In the painting, reality is comprised of more than just physicality; the Screamer’s mental state plays an equal – if not greater – part in the construction of meaning.

Prideaux describes how Munch spoke of The Scream in the later part of his life and quotes him as saying:

For several years I was almost mad – that was the time when the terror of insanity reared up its twisted head. You know my picture, The Scream? I was being stretched to the limit – nature was screaming in my blood – I was at breaking point. You know my pictures, you know it all – you know I felt it all. (qtd. in Prideaux 45)

It is because of statements like this one that I began to wonder how aware Munch was of his own artistic and stylistic choices in creating The Scream. Though the artist struggled in vain, even later in his life, to attach words to The Scream, he created an effective visual narrative that supports Baumgarten’s assertion that aesthetics must be held paramount in the reading of a work of art. Often, individuals grappling with debilitating mental illness find difficulty in articulating their pain. But in the case of The Scream, Munch’s unconscious seems to have somehow communicated itself more effectively than the artist could with his own words.



Works Cited

Baumgarten, Alexander. Aesthetics, 1750. Print.

Bell, Clive. “The Aesthetic Hypothesis.” In Art. Ed. J.B. Bullen. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1914. Print.

Brandon, Laura. Art or Memorial?: The Forgotten History of Canada’s War Art. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006. Print.

Burckhardt, Jacob. Reflections on History. 1872. Print.

Danto, Arthur. “The Art World.” In The Journal of Philosophy, 61.19, American Philosophical Association Eastern Division Sixty-First Annual Meeting. (15 Oct, 1964): 571-584. Print.

Dittman, Reidar. Eros and Psyche: Strindberg and Munch in the 1890s. Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1976. Print.

Greenberg, Clement. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch.” In The Partisan Review, 1939. Print.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. Print.

Jameson, Frederich. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment, 1790. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. 1980. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. Oxford: Blackwell.

Loshak, David. Munch. Princeton: Knickerbocker Press, 1989. Print.

Minor, Vernon Hyde. Art History’s History. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2001. Print.

Prelinger, Elizabeth. “Music to our Ears? Munch’s Scream and Romantic Music Theory.” In The Arts Entwined, Ed. Marsha Morton and Peter Shmunk. Oxford: Taylor and Francis, 2000. Print.

Prideaux, Sue. Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Print.

Wölfflin, Heinrich. “Principles of Art History.” In The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art. Trans. from 7th German Ed. into English by M D Hottinger. New York: Dover Publications, 1919. Print.


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Mallory Austin is in her fourth year of the Honours Specialization in Art History and Criticism degree at the University of Western Ontario. She has also studied Studio Arts at Brock University.