In reading this famous painting, hanging in the National Museum, Oslo, Norway, critics usually bring up themes of social alienation, of emotional extremes — such as anxiety, loneliness and despair — that anticipate the nihilism of the world wars and the general sense of existential impasse that followed.
The main artistic device in this sketchy, almost primitive composition is the line: Munch fully exploits the possibilities of this important tool, putting it to painterly, as well as psychological (expressionist) effect. Color plays a no less important, but subordinate role (the black and white lithograph exemplifies how the painting retains its punch even after being discolored).
To enhance the emotional effect, the painter employed his trademark device: confronting the beholder with the protagonist face to face. The figure running towards the audience, cut by the lower edge of the frame, appears to (want to) break the fourth wall, engaging not only the spectator, but the medium itself.
Insanity and Normality
There are two kinds of lines, the wavy serpentine ones that constitute the landscape and delineate the protagonist, and the straight ones that form the bridge. I think it is possible to envisage the lines as visual metaphors of madness and sanity, respectively. The artist juxtaposes them, and thus produces immense tension, channeled into the crying person’s head as the closest and most obvious receptacle: the head is the vertex of a global compositional triangle — the sky, the beach and the bridge.
As a result of absorbing all this tension — a process imposed by the composition — the figure begins to suffer an overload, and hold its head in distress. In other words, there is a clear compositional logic to explain, or underpin, the psychologically laden connotation of an individual being suppressed, terrorized, or persecuted by his surroundings. This perfect convergence of compositional organization with allegorical narrative becomes one of the chief elements to make this work such a potent and lasting icon.
The bridge represents an island island of sanity to which the screamer escaped from below, carrying in him the characteristics of that particular ambiance (insanity). It would seem that the physical transition failed to “straighten” things out for him, and he is out of place on that bridge, unlike the two receding figures. For the victim (let’s call him that), madness continues on the bridge; he demonstrates this literally, with undulating lines of his head, torso and hands.
Color not only reaffirms the tension but further enhances it, to the point of rendering the viewing experience uneasy. Yellows and reds battle with the blues and the greens; the skyline becomes the front line.
There is something theatrical about the whole set-up: the beach is the pit and the bridge is the gallery; the play itself is insignificant — it’s someone from the audience who steals the show, by running from the spectacle being given. The sky becomes the curtain that hangs from above and threatens to cover and consume the scene on the stage (the lake), which by now may be viewed only as a farce.
By evoking the allegory of “life as a stage,” the artist offers a social commentary. But it is also a personal commentary — a personal experience. Everyone is the protagonist in their own play, and the painting addresses the individual actor (spectator) more than the mass of participants as a whole.
While this allegory of a theater may interfere with the purity of the expressionistic concept, and breach its innate mystery, it also provides a familiar model of human relations to help the audience understand the image. Honore de Balzac demonstrated just how cruel and unforgiving these relations can be in his aptly ironically named cycle “The Human Comedy.”
*this article has been edited at a later date