Scholastic Art, Sep-Oct 1996 v27 n1 p2(2).

A haunted life. (the life of Edvard Munch)

"While I was out walking, the sun began to set. Suddenly the sky fumed bloodred. Tongues of fire bumed above the blue-black water. I stood trembling with fear. At that moment, I felt an endless scream passing through nature."

Have you ever felt like this? Do you recognize any of these emotions when you look at the cover of this magazine? These words were written by Edvard Munch (Moonk), the artist who painted this work over 100 years ago. If you feel you’ve seen this image before, you probably have, since it has appeared on posters, buttons, album covers, cartoons, and T shirts.

Munch’s The Scream is possibly the most powerful visual symbol ever created for the anxieties of modem life. During the final years of the last century, when the artist did this work, society was being completely transformed—politically, socially and technologically. New machines like the airplane, the automobile the telephone, and the radio were changing people’s lives. Modern cities were growing rapidly, and with them a sense of isolation and alienation. And advances in science and psychology were establishing the importance of emotions and the unconscious. Artists of the time like Munch, needed to express their feelings about these disturbing changes. The Scream is one of the best known examples of a new kind of painting called Expressionism. In this work, Munch doesn’t just paint what a person in pain might look like. He sees the world through the eyes of this agonized person. In The Scream, the entire landscape is distorted by pain and despair. A ghostly figure clutches its skull-like head in agony. Blood-red lines vibrate around it like shrieks of terror.

Born in Norway in 1863, Edvard Munch knew how a person in emotional pain feels. His mother died when he was 5 and a sister when he was 14. His father was a doctor who saw patients at home. Edvard himself was always in poor health. As he grew up, the artist decided that his family was doomed and that he would die at an early age. Ten years after graduating from the Oslo School of Design, Munch did a strange self-portrait (left). His face emerges from the black background like a skull and he added a skeleton arm at the bottom, dating the work as if it would be one of his last. (The artist lived for 50 years after doing this portrait!)

At the same time, Munch did a kind of family portrait, Death in the Sick Chamber (above). The subject is the death of his sister, Sophie. But everyone is shown at the age they were when Munch painted the work, not the age they were when Sophie died, suggesting that death lives on in the survivors. Sophie is hidden in a chair while the artist turns away from the scene. The characters are frozen against a sickly green wall; the bright orange floor slopes forward as a stage set might. Black outlines and clashing colors add to the sense of tension and anxiety.

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