In May 2012, American billionaire Leon Black paid $120 million for Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at an auction. It’s an iconic image and along with the Mona Lisa, is one of the world’s most recognizable works of art. There also seems to be no consensus on its meaning, other than Munch being the main figure in the painting. There are many interpretations:
- A slaughterhouse is believed to have been situated within earshot of the painting’s location, near a fjord in Ekeberg, just east of Oslo, Norway. Therefore, the scream might represent his reaction to the cries of the animals.
- Edvard Munch’s sister, Laura, was committed to Gaustad, the city’s insane asylum, which was also within earshot of the painting’s location. The expression on the protagonist’s face could be his reaction as he heard the screams of the asylum patients, or even those of his sister.
- Then, of course, there is Edvard Munch’s own commentary on the painting, which one would assume would be the final word on the subject “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”. This makes sense, since the actual title of the painting (in German) is Der Schrei der Natur.
And now The Bob Angle. As you’ve probably guessed by now, I would like to add my own interpretation of this painting. I think that The Scream is actually an environmental statement, and that Edvard Munch used this painting as a way to sound the climate change alarm – 80 years before David Suzuki. Now let’s start connecting the dots.
Krakatoa is the name of an island in Indonesia. On August 26, 1883, a volcano erupted on that island and it turned out to be one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. The explosive force was equal to a 200-megaton atomic bomb, which is 13,000 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. The explosion was heard as far away as southern India, and Perth, Australia (about 1,900 kilometres away), and the sound was so loud that anyone within 10 miles of the island would have gone deaf. 165 villages were destroyed and over 36,000 people died. Twenty-one cubic kilometres of ash was hurled into the atmosphere, and some of it reached a height of 80 km.
The vast quantity of ash in the atmosphere altered the appearance of sunsets around the world for the next several years. In Chelsea, England, an artist named William Ascroft was so struck by the unusual and vivid hues in the sunsets, that he painted a series of watercolours of them, beginning in November 1883. You can view these paintings on the Science and Society Picture Library’s web site.
Perhaps Krakatoa’s most important legacy is that these sunsets made scientists examine the way dust particles travel through the atmosphere, which led to the discovery of the jet stream. The global visibility of the Krakatoa sunsets led to an awakening among scientists; they realized that the planet was an interconnected and tightly-networked entity where environmental changes in one location can have surprisingly far-reaching effects.
An Environmental Interpretation
Astronomers have noted that the sunset in the background of The Scream contains the characteristic orange and purple hues of the Krakatoa sunsets. Edvard Munch painted The Scream in 1893, but he was in Oslo immediately after the 1883 Krakatoa eruption, when the colourful sunsets began, and it is thought that they did influence The Scream. In 2003, David Olson, a physics and astronomy professor, suggested that the unusually-coloured sky in The Scream was what the sky looked like over Oslo shortly after the Krakatoa eruption.
Although The Scream was painted in 1893, I think that it actually represents an evening in late 1883, shortly after the Krakatoa eruption, when the volcanic ash and dust first started to affect the appearance of the Norwegian sunsets.
I have a two-fold interpretation of the the principal figure in the painting. He doesn’t necessarily represent Munch, but Man – not as he is now, but Man as he one day might be. Notice the grey, bulbous, slightly elongated, alien-like head, completely devoid of hair. This is a classic representation of what we used to think technologically-advanced extra-terrestrials might look like. I believe that this figure might be either an alien visiting Earth in the present day, or it might be a more evolved Man in the distant future.
If this figure represents Man, then he is the Enlightened Man – one who has evolved to live in harmony with his environment and who leaves a negligible environmental footprint. He is completely integrated with nature and his surroundings, and understands intuitively that humans are simply one small part of a large and complex ecosystem. When he gazed upon the sunset in the background, he knew immediately and intuitively that something was terribly wrong. There was a disturbance in the equilibrium; a calamity of tremendous and possibly global proportions had taken place. The blood red sky (as described by Munch himself) represents the metaphorical blood of a wounded planet. The painting’s protagonist is an empath – connected not only to his fellow humans but also to the Earth itself, and his scream is the pain he feels for the wounded Earth.
That’s how I see The Scream – as a relevant, and even poignant, allegorical tale told by a prescient artist. I’d like to hear your interpretations of this painting as well. Please write your thoughts in the Comments section, below.