Interpretations of Norway’s Most Famous Painting

Interpretations of Norway’s Most Famous Painting

As part of the move into the new National Museum in Norway’s capital, Edvard Munch’s world- famous painting “The Scream” is now preserved and studied by conservators. Read more about the interpretations of Norway’s most famous painting.

The Scream, painted by Edvard Munch in 1893, is one of the most famous paintings in the world and has been the source of countless parodies and referred to as The Cry, it has also been referenced to horror movies. The bright swirling sky and its expressionistic colors is a mysterious subject in itself, but why is the person screaming?

Interpretations of Norway’s Most Famous Painting
Edvard Munch, self portrait

Munch’s early life was a tragic affair. His mother died for tuberculosis when he was five, followed soon by his sister. Another sister was diagnosed with a serious mental illness, forcing her to live in a psychiatric institution, the father suffered manic-depressive disorders and his brother died a few months after getting married. Edvard Munch said: “I inherited two of mankind’s most frightful enemies, consumption and insanity.”

Related: The New National Museum in Oslo

All art is open to interpretation and as an artefact of ‘high’ culture, The Scream is seen as great work of art and has as a cultural product been widely referenced and reproduced. During recent conservation and research, however, new information has emerged about Edvard Munch’s world-famous motif. In the red sky, for example, there is an inscription “Can only be painted by a crazy man”. As a museum visitor, you can barely read the inscription if you stand close to the picture.

Brave and forward-thinking painters like Edvard Munch was by the end of the nineteenth century less interested in showing off their technical skills and more inclined to use their art to express inner thoughts, feelings and emotions, often considered too radical in their time. Even from early age, Munch used painting to represent anguish and despair like few artists had done before him. According to Munch himself, his art was not a form of catharsis but a scene where nothing else existed in life.

Munch was born in 1863, and grew up in Norway’s capital Christiania, now called Oslo. He was the son of a military doctor, and nephew of a Norwegian historian. Munch himself was frequently ill. He was encouraged to be culturally active, and he used his art to express his feelings about his experiences. He studied under Christian Krohg, Norway’s leading artist at the time, and his early influences were French Realist painters. Around 1889 he became involved with the Kristiania (as Christiania was spelled at this point) bohemians, a group of radical anarchists. Their leader, Hans Jæger, taught Munch about modernism, and encouraged him to paint about the longings and anxieties of the individual.

Interpretations of Norway’s Most Famous Painting
There is an inscription in the painting “The Scream”, stating: “Can only be painted by a crazy man”

Related: The Edvard Munch Collection Out of the Vaults in Oslo

The inscription on the red sky in The Scream has been known for a long time, but now conservators have analyzed the handwriting based on Munch’s letters and diaries, and through infrared photography, the inscription on the work of art appears more clearly.

The idea and inspiration for The Scream was intensely autobiographical, with the painting’s content closely inspired by a personal experience first recorded in Munch’s now infamous 1892 diary entry:

“I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous infinite scream of nature.”

For Munch, The Scream was profoundly personal. He has called it a “soul painting” in which he reveals an honest and perhaps even ugly glimpse into his inner troubles and feelings of anxiety. Originally Munch titled his painting The Scream of Nature. Well, who screams, is it the nature and the artist who is covering his ears for defense or is it an expression of the protagonist’s crisis?

Munch’s father is described as a religious man in most biographies of the artist. Perhaps it is his childhood experience of religion, and his subsequent exposure to modernist theories amongst the Kristiania bohemians, that caused conflict within him. However, Munch’s portrayal of raw human emotion through art has led to him being labelled an existentialist. Ideas of God and heaven which was once a certainty for him, were now outdated concepts, and all that was left was the suffering and anguish of a man without hope.

Interpretations of Norway’s Most Famous Painting
The Munch Museum Oslo. Photo: VisitOslo

Related: Edvard Munch Through the Eyes of Andy Warhol

But Munch loved to provoke. Today, conservators have no doubt that the inscription in The Scream was made by the artist himself. Both the handwriting and events from the time when Munch showed the painting for the first time in Norway point in the same direction. He saw his pictures as part of himself, and pressure from international media had been intense in the last 24 hours.

While Munch mentions feeling “unspeakably tired,” the painting also suggests his lightheadedness and helplessness in that moment, with the person in the foreground seemingly being pulled into the painting’s eerily sentient background.

Few people are aware that the Scream contains an inscription saying “Can only be painted by a crazy man”. Munch was probably no more neurotic than most of us. So, the inscription can be interpreted as a basic fear of being human and that we all stand alone as human beings. The figure in the painting holding his hands to his ears, is probably not the person who is screaming, but nature.

The new National Museum in Oslo will open next year, no exact date yet.

The brand-new Edvard Munch Museum will open summer this year.

Interpretations of Norway’s Most Famous Painting, written by Tor Kjolberg