A developing Norwegian painter who moved to Paris and then Berlin, Edvard Munch laid the foundation for German Expressionism. His art was considered grotesque in comparison to earlier Impressionist works. He painted like Van Gogh, depicting how he felt about subjects instead of how he saw them; but Munch didn't so much turn to subjects like beautiful landscapes with cypress trees or the pretty night sky of Southern France. A troubled man himself, Munch painted dark subjects with more overt intensity. Similar to the Symbolists, he painted abstract qualities of the human experience, but his work is primarily Expressionistic because his perspectives are not third-person in topical approach. The artist paints as one inside the scene, feeling the emotion or suffering the illness. And the emotion in The Scream is: fear.
This Expressionist work shows the world through the eyes of people in intense anguish. We are standing either on a dock or the deck of a ship; it is not entirely clear from the image. This unfamiliarity with our present surroundings suits the subject; in fear we often feel thrown into an environment which we do not feel fully comfortable with or even fully cognizant of. We're lost, and in this painting we are in no friendly place. Fiery oranges and reds top the entire scene in swirly, lava-like flows of threatening color and menacing form. The ocean swirls in tempestuous violence. Near the horizon line the ocean even seems to have funneled into a maelstrom with two helpless ships about to be swallowed in it. Everything in the painting appears unstable and shaky with curved lines and erratic brushstrokes. (Compare the swirly forms of this scene with the night sky of Van Gogh's Starry Night). In the direct middle of the scene (targeted, almost, in the dead center of the frame), is a frail and terrified person who appears to be crumbling away, like a ghost, and is screaming with his or her hands up at his or her face (the figure is sexless). Its bald head communicates a sensitive mind that is undergoing severe psychological trauma, and its black clothing symbolizes its mortality and condemnation. The shape of the person's head even looks like a skull, doesn't it? The fear being conveyed here is very raw and primal in manifestation in similar fashion to how the painting itself is stripped from realism and balance. The only straight lines we see are those of the fence and wooden platform in the foreground, as well as the two people walking away off to the left-hand side of the frame; but this is no more encouraging than the rest. The pair of bystanders is walking away, when they could be helping our poor, helpless, unidentified subject screaming in the foreground. Perhaps they can't even hear that individual's screams. (Have you ever had those dreams where you try to talk or yell, but no sound comes out or the people can't hear you?) And the planks of wood ominously receding back into the distance only seem to provide a stronghold for death, leading to no safe place but instead stretching off to the side and into the Unknown, outside of the painting. They drag on and further isolate the center figure from anyone who can be of help, from the rest of the whole world, even. This bears implications not just to the painting's own subject matter but for the work's placement within the developing state of art at this time. Impressionism sought a connection with the Modern world; that the painter of Modern life was a person of the crowd, within the circle of the public sphere. Here we see the radical opposite of that. In the works of Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch, the artist is someone totally separated from the rest of the world. In The Night Café, The Scream, the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, etc., we can see references to isolation and social exile. The Expressionist artist, therefore, turns inward—not to the crowd, not to the world, but to himself.