Art is God’s idea

Edvard Munch: The Scream

ArtWay Visual Meditation February 3, 2019

Edvard Munch: The Scream

A Monist Nightmare

by Nigel Halliday

Hell, says Sartre in Huis Clos, is other people: their power to define me is a threat to my freedom. In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, set in postapocalyptic America, the hero steers clear of every other human being. Any stranger is assumed to be a threat to life itself.

Munch, too, in The Scream has given us a powerful evocation of what it feels like to experience the reality of modernist anthropology, isolated in our own mind, and yet unavoidably trapped in the world with everyone else.

I used to think the scream of the title was the figure screaming with existential terror, but Munch tells us that the scream is not just in the figure; it is in nature. He wrote about the origins of the painting: ‘One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. 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.’

Munch is describing a form of synaesthesia, a subject that fascinated the Expressionists as it had the Romantics, the idea that our senses can set one another off. A colour might be associated with a sound, or a shape might evoke a taste. Here Munch sees the colours in the sunset and hears a scream. The human condition is read into the landscape. Humanity and the whole created order merge into a monist nightmare.

The work is roughly painted on cardboard, with lurid colours. The figure is human, but only just. You can’t tell if it is male or female. The head, devoid of hair, seems more like a skull. But the dark pinpoints of the irises make clear that there is a real, living person in there, experiencing the horror of existence. The mouth twisted through 90 degrees, channeling the scream. Or perhaps this poor individual is screaming to try to block out the sound of nature?

Munch underscores the subject’s solitude. The exaggerated perspective pushes everything else away, where the rest of humanity is in pairs – two figures in the distance on the left; two boats in the harbour. The subject is solitary, back turned to the others. And putting your hands over your ears – such an instinctive reaction – in fact only serves to isolate you even more.

And yet there is no escape. The figure is boxed in by the colours of the sky reflected by the earth below. Nature is reduced to blurred, swirling lines that echo the shapes of the figure, while also suggesting the turmoil in the person’s head.

This painting has long been recognized as an iconic image of the modern age, uncertain and subject to a dread anxiety that has to be blanked out by consumerism and hedonism or to be disarmed by an ironic embrace. You can buy T-shirts with the scream on it; a pub chain called ‘It’s a scream’ uses the image. We even have a Scream emoji for fake distress when your Dad doesn’t know who Adele is or your Mum can’t sort out the photos on her phone.

But such domestication of Munch’s horror is a loss. His is an evocative image of what is feels like to live the Enlightenment dream. To be on your own in your head, to feel separate from others, separate from nature, and yet still to be unavoidably part of it. It does look like hell. To see the beauty of a sunset but experience it as a source of terror; to share the world with others but be unable to connect with them. This does seem tragic beyond words.

For Christians The Scream is a valuable object for contemplation, a powerful counterpoint to the revelation that reality is not monist but Trinitarian. There are three distinct persons in the Godhead, living in permanent, joyful relationship with each other. This relational God is distinct from his creation even as he imbues it with his love. That we are indeed individuals in the physical world, but also spiritual beings made for love, with God and with one another.  

The work of the gospel is a ‘ministry of reconciliation’ (2 Corinthians 5:18). In Christ all things hold together (Colossians 1:17) and the great goal of God’s plan of salvation to bring all things together under Christ (Ephesians 1:10) will not be a monist nightmare, but an eternity of joyful, loving relationships in the renewed creation.


Edvard Munch:  The Scream, 1893, oil on cardboard, 91 x 73.5 cm; Oslo: National Gallery.

An exhibition ‘Edvard Munch: Love and Angst’ opens at the British Museum, London, England, on 11 April, and runs to 21 July.

Edvard Munch (1863-1944) was one of Modernism's most significant artists. He was active throughout more than sixty years, from the time he made his debut in the 1880s right up to his death in 1944. Munch was part of the Symbolist movement in the 1890s and a pioneer of Expressionist art from the beginning of the 1900s onward. His tenacious experimentation with painting, graphic art, drawing, sculpture, photo and film has given him a unique position in Norwegian as well as international art history.

Nigel Halliday is a freelance teacher and writer in the history of art and one of the leaders of Hope Church, Greatham, in the UK. See   



1. TRANSPOSITIONS – In the summer of 2010 a group of students at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) started discussing how they might bring the conversation of theology and the arts to a broader audience, one beyond the academy. The result was Transpositions, a website that takes its name from an essay by C.S. Lewis.  To view the website please visit

2. ICONS – Listen to The Creation of an Icon, Radio 4 series with iconographer Aidan Hart, at

3. CALL FOR PAPERS - 21 September – 22 September, St Michael and All Angels Chapel, Marlborough College, Bath Road, Marlborough: Advance notice and Call for Papers: Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites: Sacre Conversazioni. Deadline for proposals 31st March. Visual Theology's second conference seeks to bring church leaders, academics, and artists together to explore the legacy of John Ruskin and his ideas about theology and the arts in his bicentenary year. We welcome submissions for speaking at this event, for displaying artwork, or for offering meditative reflection on related artworks. Confirmed speakers include Prof George P. Landow, Prof Colin Cruise, and the Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury.

4. NEW BOOK – Patrick Adams: Light beyond Light: Beauty, Transformation, and the Kingdom of God (HNN Press, January 21, 2019). Many of the planetary crises we now face result from our unwillingness to engage in the efforts that beauty demands. Laziness, indifference, blindness, and selfishness are the enemies of beauty, just as truth and goodness are its constant companions. Beauty is the sign of God's kingdom among us, and our creativity is God's primary means to bring his kingdom to fulfillment. Dostoyevsky's enigmatic and tantalizing idea that "beauty will save the world" challenges our popular understanding of the nature of beauty as something superficial and benign, suggesting instead that beauty is an active and transformative power. The beauty of our world is not simply an ornament to delight our eyes, but a sign of the presence of a hidden kingdom. Like Noah's rainbow, beauty encircles the world as a sign of hope, a promise that God loves us and has not abandoned us. Beauty is the power that binds the material and immaterial realms, making them one, and making us whole. The healing of the disjuncture between the physical and spiritual worlds is the project of beauty. This project is nothing less than the salvation of humanity and the restoration of the created order--the bringing into being of the kingdom of God. You can find it on Amazon.

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