“I often feel that I must have this fear of life — it is essential to me — and that I would not exist without it. In periods without fear and illness, I have felt like a ship sailing before a strong wind without a rudder.” — Edvard Munch.
When we think about the depiction of piercing and painful feeling, the first thing that comes to mind is “The Scream” by Edward Munch. And it’s not surprising.
To manifest these emotions on a canvas, one has to have experienced them firsthand. And when it comes to hardships and loss, Edvard Munch’s biography is full of them.
At the age of five, he lost his mother to tuberculosis, which became one of the most painful memories of his childhood. But it didn’t stop there. A few years later, when he turned thirteen, his beloved elder sister Sophie suffered the same fate. This tragedy lacerated him for life.
And there was no one to console him in the time of need, as his father was suffering from psychotic depression after his wife’s death.
Not surprisingly, due to such traumatic past, the artist suffered from alcoholism and numerous nervous breakdowns. He lived alone for the rest of his life, and paintings were his only children.
His traumatic experiences influenced his inclination towards depicting the inner world with its emotional turmoils, contradiction, and suffering.
It is said that Munch’s work as a whole can be regarded as self-portraiture or visual autobiography.
But then why his most famous painting, The Scream, is so captivating and relatable to many of us?
Why can we recognize ourselves in it and understand what the central figure is experiencing at that moment?
What is the mechanism behind these painful emotions, and why are they so all-consuming and destructive?
To answer these questions, we have to start at the beginning — the event that served as the painting’s initial inspiration. This is how Munch described it:
I walked along the path with two friends, and the sun was setting. The sky became suddenly blood. I felt an approaching melancholy, stopped, and leaned on the railing, tired to death. Over the blue-black fjord and the city lay clouds of dripping smoking blood. My friends walked on, but I stood trembling with an open wound in my breast. I felt a great screaming through nature.
It’s not widely known that Edvard Munch did not paint the masterpiece from the first try.
The version we know today went through a process of experimentation and iteration.
The first step was a few simple sketches, one of which depicts him standing on a bridge and the bloody red sky above where the “screaming” occurs.
After that comes the first version of the painting, now known as Despair but which also has another name “The First Screaming.” Here the red color turns into long lines, which, however, do not connect to the central figure.
And finally, the screaming sky is shown flowing into the landscape and the man himself. His inner structure is bent, taking on the curvature of the red wave-lines.
The figure that previously looked at “screaming” now becomes a part of the event. The pain penetrates and becomes one with the man.
At this stage, Munch finally discovers the artistic means to express what he felt and heard that day.
The central figure no longer represents Munch. It’s the timeless “face of mankind” without gender, age, origin, social identity, or cultural affiliation. A face seized with primeval fear and horror. The personal experience turns into a universal experience.
This is why this painting is so memorable and relatable to anyone who ever sees it. Because it depicts one of the fundamental causes of suffering – our complete identification with pain. Our attachment to pain.
The Buddha diagnosed this deadly affliction 2500 years ago in the Sallattha sutta (The Arrow) about the arrow of pain and the arrow of suffering. Here’s how he explained it to his disciples:
Suppose they were to shoot a man with an arrow, and then with a second arrow, so that the man would feel pain caused by two arrows. So too, when the uninstructed person experiences a painful feeling, he feels two feelings—a bodily one and a mental one.
If he feels a painful feeling, he feels it attached. If he feels a pleasant feeling, he feels it attached. If he feels a neutral feeling, he feels it attached. This is called an uninstructed person who is attached to suffering, I say.
Afterward, he contrasts it with the way an enlightened arahant avoids this pitfall and keeps painful feelings at bay:
When the instructed noble disciple experiences a painful feeling, he does not sorrow, grieve, or lament; he does not weep beating his breast and become distraught. He feels one feeling—a bodily one, not a mental one.
If he feels a painful feeling, he feels it detached. If he feels a pleasant feeling, he feels it detached. If he feels a neutral feeling, he feels it detached. This is called a noble disciple who is detached from suffering, I say.
The passages above also point to the Second Noble Truth, which shows us that craving and attachment is the primary cause of any suffering. And the way to liberation from the suffering lies through the Noble Eightfold Path.