The Scream: how Munch's doom-laden image became one of the world's most famous motifs

Edvard Munch's The Scream is definitely having a moment. The image of a pale, hairless figure holding its head in its hands and howling has grown to permeate every aspect of popular culture, from film and TV to memes and tattoos. You’ll find adaptations and parodies of it on student bedroom walls, on protesters’ placards and political cartoons.

The figure at the centre of The Scream has turned up in horror movies (the Scream series directed by Wes Craven in the 1990s and 2000s), advertisements and the cartoon The Simpsons. It even has its own emoji: more than 100 years after Munch created the image, millions of people use the icon he created to express anxiety when communicating digitally. Today the Scream is one of the most copied, caricatured and commercialised images in the modern world - but just how did that happen?

Born in Ådalsbruk in 1863, Munch grew up in Kristiania amid poverty, puritanism and illness. One of his first paintings, The Sick Child, is a memory of seeing his sister die. As a young artist, he had to struggle with frequent illnesses, rejection, alcoholism and a tempestuous relationship in which he got shot. 

“One evening I was walking along a path; the city was on one side and the fjord below,” Munch wrote, describing his inspiration for the painting.

“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.”

Munch made several attempts before arriving at this famous figure. His initial sketches show an elegantly dressed man gazing across the fjord with an air of melancholy. Gradually the figure becomes more anonymous and sexless, before turning towards the viewer in its distinctive pose - a figure anyone can identify with, a pure embodiment of feeling.

In his lifetime, Munch used the image as an illustration for exhibition catalogues, art journals and book covers. But, it was only after the artist's death in 1944 that the popularity of the image really took off.

Early in the 1950s, several of Munch’s paintings, including The Scream, were sent on an international tour. At the same time, the first English-language book about Munch was published. The artist's images of alienation were in tune with the spirit of the cold war era and in 1961, The Scream made the front cover of Time Magazine promoting an article titled “The Anatomy of Angst”. The image made its way into films and advertising but it took a crime to cement the Scream's celebrity status.

In 1994, on the day the Winter Olympics were due to open at Lillehammer, the National Museum’s version of The Scream was stolen. Two people climbed up a ladder, broke a windowpane, hopped through the window, took the painting off the wall and left a postcard of a painting of three laughing men bearing the handwritten message “Many thanks for the poor security”. The whole operation took 50 seconds.

Ten years later, the image was once again at the centre of a news story.  Two men, masked and carrying guns, entered the Munch Museum at Tøyen and stole both The Scream and Madonna in full view of incredulous museum visitors. 

Today, the image is being to express anxiety across the world from concerns about the election of President Trump and Covid 19 panic buying through to a hatred of Mondays. Love it or hate it, the Scream continues to speak to the whole world, regardless of age, religion, gender or education.

Munch book
Find out more about Edvard Munch's life and work