Beyond “The Scream”: Munch and Mental Illness


Munch needed art to express his grief, but his grief was necessary, so his art could exist. He created so many, emotionally charged paintings. His feelings were always all around the canvas. He expressed what he lived, how he felt so well that we don’t even need his diaries to understand his artworks. But having them gives the paintings such depth that we would need a lifetime examining. There is madness in creativity and meaning in the symbols. His early life touched him deeply, thus creating a link between his childhood, artworks, and psychology. By reading his diaries and examining his artworks, I believe that we can make a link of his illness and how it affected his art, and maybe was it the source of his art? He is very successful both in writing and painting his emotions, so there is plenty of sources from him. He said, “Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life.”

Facing much controversial feedback from his family, especially his dad, and people around him, he experimented with many different art movements. His painting “Portrait of Hans Jaeger” shows Naturalism, while “Rue Lafayette” is a well-done Impressionist painting. He used pointillism after his father’s death when he painted series of sketchy tavern scenes and bright cityscapes. After numerous experiments, Munch concluded that the Impressionist idiom did not allow sufficient expression. Jaeger told him to ‘write his life.’ He meant that Munch should search his own emotional and psychological state. After this, young Edvard started to do some self-reflection and self-examination. With the introspection, the young artist began a period of reflection and self-examination, recording his thoughts in his “soul’s diary.” His first ‘soul painting’ was his break of impressionism: “The Sick Child” (1886) based on his sister’s death. We now say that he had the following periods as an artist: Expressionism, Symbolism, Post-Impressionism and Modern Art. After “The Sick Child,” the Munch style that we recognize (like “The Scream,” or “Anxiety”) came to life. In Berlin, he did an exhibition called “The Frieze of Life.” “The Scream” was part of this series, but some other important works like “Anxiety,” “Despair,” “Jealousy”, and “Melancholy” were too. He named these paintings for his emotional states. He continued this style for a long time, until 1908, when Munch’s anxiety, compounded by drinking became extreme. He was hearing voices and suffering from paralysis. He entered a clinic where he received therapy for eight months. He was eager to get back to work. Afterward, his personality stabilized, and his mood was brightened. But as we can see now, most of his great works were behind him. His work became less pessimistic and more colorful like the mural “The Sun.” We can say that Munch was right about himself when he said his illness fed his work when he said, “Without anxiety and illness I should have been like a ship without a rudder.” He was not critically acclaimed, for example his exhibition in Berlin created a bitter controversy, because of the violent emotion and unconventional imagery of his paintings. Critics were also offended by his innovative technique, which to most appeared unfinished. Painter Christian Krohg was one of the people who defended him:

“He paints, or rather regards, things in a way that is different from that of other artists. He sees only the essential, and that, naturally, is all he paints. For this reason Munch’s pictures are as a rule “not complete”, as people are so delighted to discover for themselves. Oh, yes, they are complete. His complete handiwork. Art is complete once the artist has really said everything that was on his mind, and this is precisely the advantage Munch has over painters of the other generation, that he really knows how to show us what he has felt, and what has gripped him, and to this he subordinates everything else.” From early years, Munch had his own style such that in Paris, an esteemed painting teacher accused him for portraying a rosy brick wall in the green shades. He accused hun if exhibiting ‘a discarded half-rubbed-out sketch’ and he made fun of the ‘random blobs of color.’ All the criticism about Munch not finishing his paintings, them being sketches are true in some part. But that’s what Munch wanted. He wanted them to look unfinished, to be raw and rough, not smooth and shiny. That’s the style that we recognize and love as Munch.


Munch learned death in early age. His mother died when he was five years old; he lost his favorite sister at the age of 15, another sister when she was 30. These lost are seen in his paintings. “Death in the Sickroom” is regarded as a representation of the Munch family’s vigil over his dying sister. According to many sources, he suffered from anxiety and depression. Some psychologists argued that in fact, he was sane, but we can’t ignore the fact that another sister of his is institutionalized for mental illness for all her life. It’s hard not to see the genetic link to his mental illness, and it’s proven that most psychological illnesses are genetic. (Twin Studies) All these lost made him aware of death, and so his representations of death. His perception of reality and how he sees the world was of course changed. Some examples of paintings that we see the reoccurring death themes are “Self-portrait with Skeleton Arm,” “Golgotha,” “The Dead Mother,” “Ashes” and “Death and the Lady.” We’ll analyze some of them in this paper. And about his father, he criticized Munch constantly. He was a good man, but he was odd as well. Munch wrote: ”My father was temperamentally nervous and obsessively religious—to the point of psychoneurosis. From him I inherited the seeds of madness. The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.” The father, Christian, criticized his children by telling them that their mother was watching them from heaven and mourning over their misbehavior. The oppressive religious milieu, Edvard’s poor health, and the vivid ghost stories caused horrible visions and nightmares; the young Edvard felt that death was constantly advancing on him. We can understand his aloneness — a child without mother. He never married, in his diary, he wrote about himself in the third person: “Ever since he was a child he had hated marriage. His sick and nervous home had given him the feeling that he had no right to get married.” Once, he had an intimate relationship with Tulla Larsen, an upper-class, liberated woman. She wanted to marry, but Munch didn’t. Munch painted all his life, from childhood until death. He connected with his paintings in such a matter that he was showing a reluctance to part with his paintings, which he termed his “children”.


From Munch’s diary descriptions, psychiatrists made the diagnosis of bipolar disorder with psychosis. His manic disrupted behavior manifested itself in his shooting two joints off his finger on his left hand. He experienced visual and auditory hallucinations as well. The story of “The Scream” is certainly a visual hallucination, and he managed to transform this into a very successful artwork over a period of eighteen months. So the creation of artwork doesn’t happen overnight after experiencing a terrifying experience. He worked on this piece for 18 months, making drafts and drawings. Visual hallucinations such as happened in “The Scream” is common in psychotic illnesses, but healthy creative processes are vital to transforming them into art. So it’s important to note that it’s not a direct link from his illness to a masterpiece, but he is one of the talented people who managed to have a healthy creative process to turn his experience into “The Scream,” and many more of his artworks. Many of his paintings are originated from Munch’s personal experiences. Thus they have the power to put light on Munch’s emotional and psychological condition. The paintings are part autobiography, part metaphor, but works vividly depict their inner landscapes, haunted by fear, sadness, horror, and terror. Maybe the act of expressing pain is a means of healing for the artist, as well as a documentation of the healing process for us. His way of using his illness in art resulted as a source to see what is inside people’s head who suffer from mental illness.

In his work, the dark color palette he used is linked to depression. He sees everything in a sad sense, everything with a pessimistic look even. Depression is caused by a combination of biological, psychological and social sources of distress. As someone who has a sister in the mental hospital and who experiences psychosis and hallucinations, the first two are correct. He saw multiple deaths in his family and received negative critic on his art, so it’s possible that he had depression and reflected on his art by the color palette. We also see that after he left the institution and got ‘better,’ he started using more bright colors like the mural “The Sun.” There is a recurrence of themes of death in his art, and we see the anxiety in “The Scream” and on his fixation on his finger. He said, ”My condition was verging on madness—it was touch and go.”

Some scientists argued that he may have exaggerated what he did have, or he might make a fixation on what critics said about him, and him not having the illness, but being portrayed as one may have resulted in cognitive dissonance where there are conflicting values and behaviors that we resolve through rationalization of behavior. If Munch is portraying his artwork in a way that projects mental illness but he is not mentally ill, he is going to take up some of those attitudes to match his behaviors (in this case, his paintings) because as humans, we seek to be consistent. Inconsistencies between thoughts, feelings, and behavior create an unpleasant mental state that motivates efforts to resolve them. Even if he had or hadn’t a mental illness, he did an amazing job visually interpreting the mental disquiet associated with anxiety, depression and even hallucination.


Both before and after his therapy, his paintings are full of emotion. After all the tragedies he lived through, he still saw his illness as a positive thing, and he described his feelings very articulated in his diaries. He said, “I have been given a unique role to play on this earth… given to me by a life filled with sickness, ill-starred circumstances and my profession as an artist. It is a life that contains nothing even resembling happiness.” According to Hanns Neurerbourg, “10 years before his death said that he was ‘born dying.’” He explored isolation, madness, loneliness, sexuality. No painter has more thoroughly explored the theme of death. He said, “my sufferings are part of myself and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.” As we know, memories are not reliable things. Experiences impact it since the event as well as the current emotions and schemas that form how a person sees the world. Munch’s anxiety and depression distorted the memory of some events of his life. All those traumas created a sort of filter that made him transfer his daily life through his current state of feelings to project his emotion on to the canvas. He wrote his goal in his diary: “in my art, I attempt to explain life and its meaning to myself.” He said, “Illness, insanity, and death are the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.” He was constantly reminded of death by his family, or in his nightmares. In “Self-Portrait with Skeleton Arm,” we see the arm at the bottom of the painting. It’s a representation of ‘Memento Mori,’ or reminder of death. It’s done with an etching needle-and-ink method, and it exhibits Munch’s introversion and his preoccupation with death. In another painting, “Self Portrait between the Clock and the Bed,” he looks physically awkward. He is standing in a weird matter as if he’s apologizing for taking up space, even for existing. It’s one of his last paintings. He was living alone at that time, and the painting is indicative of the isolation in his late life. Art historians think that artist is unconcerned with time passing and waiting for death. The name of the painting has two symbols of death, and he is between them, just an old man standing, waiting, and confronting death. Against the theme of the painting, but in accord with his style in the last decades of his life, artwork has vibrant coloration. 

“The Scream” is part of Munch’s semi-autobiographical cycle, “The Frieze of Life.” It’s a simple work, in which the achieved maximum expressiveness. It was painted at the end of the 19th century during an interesting transitional period in art history, usually cited as fin de siècle. Instead of showing their technical skills, some bold painters like Munch started doing introspection. It’s hard to see what is happening in the painting other than the main focus character since it’s such an eye-catching representation of a person. It might take several seconds until we realize it’s a bridge and there are two other people behind. Those two people behind are his friends in the story. Munch wrote in his diary: “I was walking along the road with two friends -the sun went down- I felt a gust of melancholy— suddenly the turned a bloody red. I stopped, leaned against the railing, tired to death… as the flaming skies hung like blood and sword over the blue-black fjord the city. My friends went on- I stood there trembling with anxiety-and I felt a vast infinite scream [tear] through nature.” We can understand that maybe he had an experience of synesthesia. In this painting, he made a visual representation of sound and emotion. He always painted what he sees with the filter he had in mind. He said: “I do not paint what I see but what I saw,” meaning that he filters his memory. Here, he provided a visual image by expressing internal emotions through external forms. In his notebook, he wrote: “It is not the chair which is to be painted but what the human being has felt in relation to it.” “The Scream” is a work of revived sensation rather than observed reality. This painting is said to show his anxiety and uncertainty as well. We can see existentialism and themes of relationships, life, death, dread. It’s also important to note his mentally ill sister was hospitalized at the time “The Scream” was painted in 1893, and the mental asylum where her sister was located is actually very nearby to the spot illustrated in the painting.


Golgotha is the place where Jesus was crucified. Munch painted in the year 1900 when he was in a sanatorium. As mentioned before, Munch was never good in intimate relationships. His most intense affair ended with the use of a gun. His anxiety became extreme when he lost part of his finger. He wrote (speaking about himself in the third person): “Everybody stared at him, at his deformed hand. He noticed that those he shared a table with were disgusted by the sight of his monstrosity.” He felt anxiety. He talks about and paints in such a dramatic, and religiously symbolic way of it shows us how conscious he was of what people thought of him and how obvious his anxiety of presentation to others was for him. In Golgotha, we see Munch painting himself as Christ, being crucified. This painting is a remembrance of a failed romance. He draws himself nailed to cross to show his exaggerated feelings of persecution and paranoia. He was incapable to stop his habit of drinking and horror of marriage. Since he didn’t want to marry, Larsen left him to marry another person who was a younger colleague of Munch. In the composition, the characters around him are not staring at his face, rather they are looking at his feet, except one person who looks like praying for him. We can notice that this is Larsen, who cared profoundly for Munch. The seven faces that we see are considered as seven cardinal sins. The man crucified is helpless —perhaps because of his mental illness. This represents why the crucified man is shown with no detail, to show that man can have no individuality if he is surrounded by the sins that he commits. Even though we see the negativity in this painting, it also shows that there are redemption and hope. If we fight our demons, it’s possible to rebirth. He said: “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”

His paintings are of great value not only in the art world but in Psychology as his paintings make mental illnesses more relatable and more applicable to the average person. Psychologists even gained some insight into what someone with a mental illness might be feeling. In the “Frieze of Life” series, Munch showed 22 paintings in three categories: Love, Angst (anxiety), and Death. With this series, all these emotions are portrayed in a sense that it would be more applicable to the regular person. Munch made the mental illness he saved more relatable like some of his work in “Frieze of Life”: “Jealousy” (1895), “Separation” (1896) and “Anxiety” (1894). Munch had many issues in his head, but he was aware of them, and their presence was the source of his art as he said. Munch was a gem to both art and psychology world, and even though he faced many controversial feedbacks, he was regarded as a pioneer in the art world, and now seen one of the best painters of all time. His work was deeply influenced by the traumas he lived through as a child, and the experiences he had linked to his mental disorders. To better understand Munch’s artwork, it’s good to learn more about his life.



Prideaux, Sue. Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream. Yale University Press, 2005.

Munch, Edvard. The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth. University of Wisconsin Press, 2005.

Sussman, Adrienne. Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological View of the “Tortured Artist”. Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, 2007.

Rothenber, Albert. Creativity and Mental Illness II: The Scream. Psychology Today, 2005.

Lubow, Arthur. Edvard Munch: Beyond The Scream. Smithsonian Magazine, 2006.

Paulson, Dr. Noelle. Munch, The Scream. Khan Academy.

Whitmore, Janet. Becoming Edvard Munch, Influence, Anxiety and Myth. Harrington College of Design, 2009.

Boe, Roy Asbjorn. Edvard Munch: His Life and Work from 1880 to 1920, Volumes I and II. New York University, 1969.



Aleyna Dogan

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