The Infinite Scream of Nature: The Art of Edvard Munch

Continuing my series of posts on my favorite artists, I’ve decided today to focus on Edvard Munch (1863-1944). A Norwegian Symbolist painter, Munch — like other Symbolists — rejected the naturalistic and realistic in art in favor of presenting the imagination, dreams, visual emotion. Like Romantic painters Turner and Friedrich, Symbolists sought not to portray the visual world as it is, but to manipulate familiar objects into tools to communicate meaning. For Munch, this often meant infusing objects and scenes with anxiety, isolation, terror, and deep, agonizing love.

The quintessential, and most famous, example of this is Munch’s Scream, which so pulses with horror that even the most casual observer is impacted by it. Of the inspiration for the painting, Munch said, “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.” Moments of intense feeling like this were what Munch strived to capture in his work — not the scene, but the collision of emotional cause and effect, the essence of what it means to be a deeply feeling human being. Munch wrote of his goals as an artist: “My art is really a voluntary confession and an attempt to explain to myself my relationship with life—it is, therefore, actually a sort of egoism, but I am constantly hoping that through this I can help others achieve clarity.”

This is exactly what I seek in my own work, which is perhaps more difficult in writing because it isn’t a medium that communicates through direct sensory experience. Still, it’s possible for the writer who is capable of seeing the world so particularly and intimately through the character’s eyes — as Munch does through his own eyes as an artist — that everything, every spoon and valance and torn page and sprout of mold, is inseparably linked with the character’s emotions. Such a story (whether a short story or a novel or some other form of narrative along the continuum) becomes not just a portrayal of a series of events in an imagined life, but a rendering of raw emotion, of life itself.

The Scream - 1893
Madonna - 1894-95
Love and Pain (also called, mistakenly, Vampire) - 1893-94
Puberty - 1895

For more work by Edvard Munch, as well as biographical information about the artist himself, check out Edvard Munch: The Dance of Life.

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