The Scream!

I’ve had Edvard Munch’s The Scream (right, 1893 version, also known as The Cry) keep popping into my mind lately. This week I’m getting ready for an extremely busy spring quarter, which will start next Monday. Although I know that the workload will be manageable (I’m too organized to let things become unmanageable!), this image keeps coming to mind when I look at my upcoming calendar. There’s so much work to be done!

I thought I’d share my two favorite things about this painting (well, I should say that there are four versions of this painting, but I especially like the 1893 version). My favorite art historical argument about The Scream was put forth in 1978 by Robert Rosenblum.1 Rosenblum argued is that the screaming figure was inspired by a Peruvian Mummy, which Munch would have seen on view at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. This mummy, called the “momie trépanée,” is now located in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris (see an additional image of the mummy here). It is thought that Gauguin also saw this mummy on display; the old woman in his painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897) bears a strong resemblance to the mummy’s features and fetal position.

I also love that The Scream has quite a history when it comes to art crime. Versions of The Scream have been stolen from the National Gallery in Norway (in 1994) and the Munch Museum (in 2004 – Wikipedia even has a photo of the thieves with their loot!). I think the 1994 story is especially interesting; a few years ago I read The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick, which discusses the theft and recovery in detail. If you’re interested in art crime, I’d recommend this book. Essentially, two thieves simply propped a ladder against the window of the museum, shattered the glass, and stole the painting around 6:30 in the morning. The crime occurred on quite a historic day, 12 February 1994, the opening day for the Olympic Games held in Lillehammer. The painting was recovered in May of that same year.

On a side note, I wanted to point out that The Scream was originally titled Despair. (This original title doesn’t surprise me, since it seems like Munch experienced a lot of despair and turmoil in his personal life.) I have to say, though, that I don’t feel despair when I think about the upcoming spring quarter. Actually, I’m quite excited about it, even though I know it will be very busy.

1 Robert Rosenblum, “Symbols and Images of Edvard Munch,” (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1978).

  • heidenkind says:

    There was a visual quote of The Scream in that graphic novel I just reviewed, The Salon. It made me lawl. 🙂

  • Hels says:

    I think that Despair would have been a great title, given that most viewers can easily identify with the poor sod on the bridge. The face is in pain. Even the landscape is swirling around, out of control. Only the two people strolling on the bridge seem unaware of pain.

  • Emily says:

    Great post! I really enjoyed it.

  • Benjamin (Ben) says:

    I love the artist's own account of the work. Reading it (especially the last part of what follows) definitely changed the way I saw it.

    "I stopped and leaned against the balustrade, almost dead with fatigue. Above the blue-black fjord hung the clouds, red as blood and tongues of fire. My friends had left me, and alone, trembling with anguish, I became aware of the vast, infinite cry of nature."

    So whose cry/scream is it anyway?

  • Judy says:

    I feel like this on many days…probably not in Despair but just ready to scream.

    Thanks for the Rosenberg theory on the mask. I don't remember knowing that and within the last year I watched a BBC presentation on the work.

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. I think people are drawn to this image because they can relate to the things that people have mentioned here: pain, despair, etc. Such feelings and emotions are part of the human experience – even though I think most people hope that such emotions are experienced on an infrequent basis! With this image, Munch seems to have tapped into a poignant part of the human condition.

    Ben brings up a great point: to whom does the cry/scream (and despair!) belong to? I guess Nature? 🙂

  • columnist says:


  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting post M!

    The scream has penetrated pop culture in a huge way. I have even seen inflatable versions of the figure from the scream – though its most famous reference in pop culture is of course Macauley Culkin aping it Home Alone.

    The 1974 film, shot in docudrama format on Munch's life is absolutely fantastic – a stunning portrayal of the harrowing nature of the man's life that would have led him to produce such a work.

    Good luck with the upcoming academic quarter. I am sure your students will be perpetually delighted with the hard work you put into everything!


  • M says:

    Columnist: Ha!

    H Niyazi: Thanks for the film recommendation! I didn't know that a film had been done about Munch. I'll check it out!

  • P. M. Doolan says:

    Any theories as too why The Sream is so insistently popular among teenagers. In my experience, it is often the only painting that they can identify, along with The Mona Lisa. But the latter is most ofteen decsribed as booooooooooring. While The Scream is cool.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.