When it comes to paintings that make the viewers uneasy, the Anxiety painting by Edvard Munch has to be on the list. Focused more on social anxiety, this painting puts the viewers into the place of someone who suffers from the fear of prying eyes, even if the eyes are just looking benign. Edvard Munch suffered from anxiety himself and that’s the reason why he portrayed it so well in this painting.
People familiar with the most famous painting of Munch, The Scream might recognize the background of this painting. The turbulent red sky that feels like the clouds are made of fire, inspired by the painter Van Gogh’s paintings, as Munch was an admirer of his works. The hills in the background and the lake are all melting as if this scene is from a fever dream.
What stands out in this painting is the subject, the people. There are about 9 faces that you can see on the left side of the canvas. But I don’t think it would be correct to call them “faces”. These people have something that resembles a face. The whole scene feels like a nightmare. And that is what anxiety is.
About the painting
- Name of the painting: Anxiety (Norwegian: Angst)
- Artist: Edvard Munch
- Year: 1894
- Medium: Oil on canvas
- Genre: Expressionism, Symbolism
- Dimension: 37-inches × 29.1-inches (94 cm × 74 cm)
- Location: Munch Museum, Oslo
What the painting conveys
Munch was known to paint however he felt, in his style and pattern. There are two ways to look at the painting’s meaning or two interpretations. First is to assume that Munch wanted to place the viewers with the crowd and make them feel the anxiety that the crowd is feeling. A sense of collective sadness. The second interpretation would be that Munch wanted to place the viewers in front of the crowd to make the viewers feel the anxiety of being watched by these distorted faces. Let’s look at both interpretations.
The people are anxious
The first meaning of the painting could be that Edvard Munch was trying to show a group of people collectively suffering from anxiety. This is plausible when one looks at the previous work of Munch. In the painting The Scream, we can see a single person standing in the same spot, suffering from an apparent panic attack. This sudden and acute attack of anxiety is being transferred to a crowd.
So perhaps Munch put a few people at the same spot and instead of the powerful, intense person’s pain of mind, Munch conveyed the gradual, collective, and slowly consuming disease, anxiety in a population. This can also be assumed since these people hardly have any emotions on their faces. They have a haggard countenance and seem to be barely aware of other people around them.
These people also seem to be walking around senselessly. All of these things suggest that Munch was portraying anxiety in a group of people. While The Scream was short, intense, and localized, Anxiety is spread, gradual and long-lasting. But that’s not all the only meaning of the painting. What if Munch wanted to make the viewers feel how anxiety feels like?
The viewers are anxious
The other meaning of this painting could be that Munch is trying to put the viewers into feeling what anxiety feels like. The feeling of terror and trepidation, the fright that makes your heartbeat rise and limbs shiver. That feeling makes you sweat and feel an intense wave of heat running all over your body. But how does it make someone feel anxious?
Look at the faces of all these people. They don’t seem to have an expression at all. When anyone looks at you, humans have a keen sense of getting the emotions from their faces, whether the person is looking at you happily, or in anger. But these people have no emotion at all. This creates a confusing response in our brains and gives their faces a very eerie and creepy look.
The dead eyes with no expression, long, pale faces like corpses, all wearing black and staring into your eyes. The people at the back don’t even have a face. They are like ghostly figures standing in the crowd, advancing towards the viewer. This is what makes us feel social anxiety when you can feel everyone’s eyes on you but cannot make out why they are looking. Is it something they can see in you that you cannot?
This is what makes the painting so unique. Doesn’t matter who the artist was showing to be anxious, this painting catches the eyes of the viewers. Munch was successful in making the viewers look in discomfort and the name of the painting succeeds in its purpose.
The red wavy sky with the fiery orange and yellow color and the dark, murky waters with the boats add a lot to the menacing effect of this painting. It is almost as if there is some great suffering ahead, into the direction the viewers are looking at and these people are the sufferers. If you look at the lady’s expression, the despair and hopelessness it exhibits show the effects of the dreadful background.
The world where Munch has placed the readers is a turbulent one with a hellish sky and inhabited by tortured souls with no emotions. This is what makes the viewers uncomfortable and gives the readers an eerie feeling.
There is a terrible beauty in the angst. The faces, the expression, the feeling of being lonely even if you are in a crowd and the hellish sky that seems to be filled with fire creates an atmosphere of fear. And that is what makes this painting intriguing. This is anxiety, whether you see yourself in the crowd or at the front of it. No matter where you are, you will feel debilitating anxiety.
Munch also suffered from anxiety and perhaps this is what he wanted to convey through this painting. The dead-stare from these people whose faces are barely human, just apparitions. The painting is also divided peculiarly. Instead of a vertical straight line dividing the painting from the middle, a diagonal line cuts the painting, putting the back and dull people on one side and the fiery red sky and background on the other.
This concludes the article. But that should not conclude the exploration of paintings. Here are some more analysis of great paintings that you should read. Take a look: