Edvard Munch and the shriek of nature

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was a Norwegian Symbolist painter, printmaker and an important pioneer of expressionist art. His best-known composition, The Scream, is only one of many images exploring the psychology of love, fear, death, melancholia, and anxiety.

Munch created several versions of The Scream in various media. Oslo’s National Gallery, holds one of two painted versions (1893). The Munch Museum holds the other painted version (1910) and one pastel. A fourth version in pastel (1895) will be offered at auction in New York on 2 May 2012. Experts estimate that the painting could sell for as much as US$80 million. This version is the only one with a frame hand-painted by Munch which includes a poem about the image and the only version in which one of the two figures in the background turns to look outward onto the cityscape.

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 is closer to the English shriek. In a page in his diary written at Nice on 22 January 1892, Munch described his inspiration for the image:

“I was walking along a path with two friends
the sun was setting
I felt a breath of melancholy
Suddenly the sky turned blood-red
I stopped and leant against the railing,
deathly tired
looking out across flaming clouds that hung
like – blood and a sword over the
deep blue fjord and town
My friends walked on –
I stood there trembling with anxiety
And I felt a great, infinite scream pass
through nature.”

The scene in the painting was identified as being the view from a road overlooking Oslo, the Oslofjord and Hovedøya, from the hill of Ekeberg. At the time of painting the work, Munch’s manic depressive sister, Laura Catherine, was interned in the mental hospital at the foot of Ekeberg.

In the 1930s the Nazis labeled Munch’s work “degenerate art” and removed 82 works from German museums. In 1940 the Germans invaded Norway and the Nazi party took over the government. Munch was 76 years old. With a huge collection of his art on the second floor of his house, he lived in fear of Nazi persecution. Seventy-one of the paintings previously confiscated had found their way back to Norway having been purchased by collectors, including The Scream, and they were all hidden from the Nazis for the duration of the war.

When Munch died, he bequeathed his works to the city of Oslo, which built the Munch Museum. It hosts approximately 1,100 paintings, 4,500 drawings, and 18,000 prints, the largest collection of his works in the world.

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