- It is widely assumed that the figure in Edvard Munch’s painting, known as “The Scream”, is screaming.
- An inscription under one version of the image proves the figure is actually reacting to a scream, rather than screaming itself, a curator at the British Museum told INSIDER.
- The artwork has become an emblematic symbol for anxiety, and is referenced thousands of times a day via the emoji it inspired.
The figure in Edvard Munch’s iconic artwork, “The Scream,” is not actually screaming, as is widely assumed, the British Museum said on Wednesday. Instead, it is reacting to a scream.
Munch made clear what was going on in an inscription on a rarely-seen black-and-white version of the image, which Munch annotated with the words “I felt the great scream throughout nature.”
According to Giulia Bartrum, who is curating a Munch exhibition at the British Museum which features the black-and-white lithograph, this shows that the figure is hearing the scream rather than making it.
Munch, a Norwegian artist, finished the first painting in 1893, but made several more versions.
In the decades since, the image has morphed into a universal symbol for anxiety, and is clearly reference in the “person screaming” emoji. According to the emojitracker website, it is the 53rd most frequently used emoji.
The British Museum is displaying the lithograph as part of its exhibition “Edvard Munch: love and angst” from April 11 to July 21.
Bartrum told INSIDER: “This rare version of The Scream that we’re displaying at the British Museum makes clear that Munch’s most famous artwork depicts a person hearing a ‘scream’ and not, as many people continue to assume and debate, a person screaming.”
“Munch very deliberately included the caption [. . .] on this version to describe how his inspiration came from the anxiety he suddenly felt as he walked along a path in Oslo, a place you can still visit today,” Bartrum continued.
Munch said that the piece recreated the feeling of panic he felt when the sky turned blood red on his walk, according to Bartrum.
“I have no doubt that this iconic figure is reacting to nature’s external forces on that hillside. What can still be debated is whether, for Munch, those forces were real or psychological,” the curator said.
She added that Munch was known for creating images that symbolise strong emotions, like love or jealousy. “The Scream” transmits the feeling of a panic-inducing scream with a simple design: Wavy bands in the sky give the sensation of a quivering tuning fork, as a figure covers its ears, Bartrum said.
“This stylised gesture will always be instantly recognisable to people as despair,” she said.
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