Visceral. Contorted. A face echoing a soul in torment. When Edvard Munch painted The Scream was his mind submerged in the existential abyss pondered by Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher he admired so much – whose portrait he painted posthumously and whose words inflicted the pages of books perforating shelves in his home; words fighting to re-centre the universe around the human will?
How excruciating it must be to grapple with an ethic of nothingness – where existence is strangled by futile attempts to impose meaning onto life. Where the highest ordination of being is mankind. Where the individual – flawed, fickle, fallible – is his own God and the only thing to do is live in the moment, for the moment and in search of the next moment.
And when the moment is gone…blackness extends its carnivorous claws, clutching at remnants of life that slowly bleed into nothingness. Does not every fibre of life recoil against this prophecy of doom?
“One evening I was walking along a path; the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord — the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked. This became The Scream.” – Edvard Munch
A colour so magnificent, so provocative, that nature cries out in retaliation to its very existence and in so doing magnifies its presence, as the setting sun bleeds red into the world over which it presides – a sacrament to being. A Promise. A covenant. An ode to life.
An expressionist artist, Munch would converge what his eye beheld in this moment with his own heart, soul and mind (the institutionalisation of his sister, his existential anguish, the exhaustion that comes with years of turmoil and anxiety wrought by living), expelling all the torment and turbulence of being, his innermost dreams and desires, with brush and paint. His voice is haunting, torturous – a scream against that which he perceives to be true but against which is soul recoils.
Perhaps falling into nothingness is easier for some; absolution from the murder of that which must prevail above all else – life. But it shouldn’t be easy; no thing that is unnatural is.
Munch’s The Scream has become an icon of pain, infiltrating popular culture with symbolic extravagance. It’s been adapted and parodied and perhaps diminished by memes, emojis and other reductive forms of expression. But there is great compliment in this form of reinvention – that one image could so beautifully and tragically embody that essence of human pain, boring us hollow, as ghosts, vapours…
…unless we fight, scream, against that which our soul knows to be untrue.