The Scream goes to auction at Sotheby's

Edvard Munch's The Scream: a few facts and theories

Why the painting John Boulton called a 'unique visual image of panic' is one of the most picked over in art history

It occurred to us that all the talk about Edvard Munch’s mesmeric and best known painting today has been centred on the price it's expected to reach at Sotheby’s. Viewing art through the distorting prism of a price band is never helpful - trying to understand what the artist 'meant' by the picture is also fraught (which is where Phaidon's wonderful The Art MuseumThe Art Book et al, can help you out). At though, we thought you might be interested in a few of the views, facts and theories about The Scream, a painting which John Boulton Smith famously called “a unique visual image of panic.” 

Munch painted four versions of the painting between 1893 and 1910. The following words were hand-painted by Munch in poem form on the frame of the 1895 version, the one on sale at Sothebys today.

“I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”  

The scene has been identified as being the view from a road overlooking Oslo, the Osl Oslofjord and Hovedøya, from the hill of Ekeberg. At the time of painting, Munch's sister Laura Catherine was residing in the mental hospital at the foot of Ekeberg. A slaughterhouse also stood nearby. 

The visual environment of The Scream has been compared to that which a person suffering from depersonalisation disorder experiences - a feeling of distortion of the environment and one's self.

One theory advanced to account for the reddish sky in the background is that the eruption of the volcano Krakatoa tinted the sky red in parts of the Western hemisphere for a few months in 1883 and 1884, about a decade before Munch painted The Scream - though this explanation has been questioned by art historians.

The original German title given to the work by Munch was Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature). The Norwegian word skrik is usually translated as scream, but has a similar etymological origin as the English shriek. Occasionally, the painting has been called The Cry.

In 1978, the Munch scholar Robert Rosenblum suggested that the creature in the foreground may have been inspired by a Peruvian mummy Munch may have seen at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. This mummy, which was crouching in a faetal position with its hands along its face, also caught Paul Gaugin's imagination and became the model for the figure in his painting Human Misery (Grape Harvest at Arles).