Albert Rothenberg, M.D.

Creative Explorations

Creativity and Mental Illness II: The Scream

Munch's creation of the famous "The Scream" used healthy mental processes.

Posted Mar 24, 2015

Edvard Munch (1863–1944) was one of the founders of the Expressionist Movement in art. The diagnosis of bipolar disorder with psychosis is based on his own diary descriptions of visual and auditory hallucinations, a multiply documented instance of his travelling throughout Europe manifesting manic disrupted behavior that culminated in his shooting two joints off the ring finger of his left hand, and his psychiatric hospitalization in 1908 for an intensification of auditory hallucinations, depression, and suicidal urges. He also suffered from bouts of alcoholism. In his diary, Munch recorded his initial conception in 1891 for his most famous artwork, titled in translation as “The Scream” or “The Screech” (Figure 1) as follows: “I was walking along the road with two of my friends. Then the sun set. The sky suddenly turned into blood, and I felt something akin to a touch of melancholy. I stood still, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Above the blue black fjord and city hung clouds of dripping, rippling blood. My  friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast. A great scream pierced through nature.” (Heller RH: Edvard Munch: The Scream. New York, Viking Press, 1972, p. 109)

FIGURE 1. Edvard Munch, The Scream  Oslo National Gallery, Oslo. Reproduced with permission
Source: FIGURE 1. Edvard Munch, The Scream Oslo National Gallery, Oslo. Reproduced with permission

This experience, clearly a visual hallucination, was creatively transformed by Munch over a period of eighteen months into a work of art. The phases of that transformation are illustrated in the accompanying Figures 2–5. In his first drawing right after the hallucination, Munch showed a solitary man far in the distance leaning in profile over a bridge and looking at the sky and a boat on a small lake (Figure 2).

Source: FIGURE 2. Edvard Munch, Study. Munch Museum, Oslo. Reproduced with permission

As an observer of the scene, the man was quite separate from the elements of nature depicted. In the next version, a painting (Figure 3), the still-profiled leaning solitary man was by Munch portrayed in the front portion of the scene where he then appeared closer both to the lake and the viewer of the artwork.

FIGURE 3. Edvard Munch, Despair  Thiel Gallery, Stockholm. Reproduced with permission.
Source: FIGURE 3. Edvard Munch, Despair Thiel Gallery, Stockholm. Reproduced with permission.

Introduced into the next charcoal drawing (Figure 4) was a round bowler hat on the man as he continued to look in profile at the lake. This rounded shape of the hat eventually became emphasized in the curved lines of both sky and man’s body in the completed artwork. Following this drawing, he did two more pen and ink sketches, one (Figure 4, right) depicted a round-hatted man in the same position as previously and the other showed the man, for the first time, looking frontward (Figure 5, left). This shift constituted a critical and creative change of presenting the man within and connected to the nature scene rather than turned in profile and separately observing it.

FIGURE 4 and 5. Edvard Munch, Despair c.1892 (both). Pen and ink. Munch Museum, Oslo.  The Munch Museum/ Reproduced with permission.
Source: FIGURE 4 and 5. Edvard Munch, Despair c.1892 (both). Pen and ink. Munch Museum, Oslo. The Munch Museum/ Reproduced with permission.

In the final version (Figure 1), first done as a lithograph and later as a painting, the hatless but round headed forward facing man is portrayed with an oval open screaming mouth and with differently oriented but similarly rounded shapes in both the red sky and the man’s body. Munch had thereby visually integrated the screaming man with the scene and produced what has been described as universal. The last two steps indicate the use of a creative homospatial process—actively conceiving and using two or more discrete entities or images occupying the same space, a conception leading to the articulation of new identities. The artist juxtaposed the front facing round hatted man with the nature vista and, as indicated by the composition, he then mentally superimposed an image of that man upon the scene. In this way, he developed the rounded shapes of head, mouth, sky, and body and the expressive images integrating the man with nature. Although the artwork began with the psychotic experience of a visual hallucination, it was necessary for the artist to transform his initial image in work and thought over the period of more than a year to produce a creative work of art. Visual hallucinations such as Munch’s commonly occur in psychotic illnesses but healthy creative processes are necessary to transform them into art. The creative homospatial process involving superimposition of images is a conscious, intentional healthy form of cognition and not a product of the pathological condition. It is used to bring about innovations and unifications and, as in the case of “The Scream,” to articulate the emotional underpinnings of ideas and experiences. Overall, Munch's intensely focused and flexible thinking over the year's time was an instance of a healthy and transformative creative process.

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