Despair by Edvard Munch: The Screaming Silence


Edvard Munch’s Despair personifies the anxiety that we all experience from time to time. Painted in his idiosyncratic style with waves of colors in the shape of turbulence symbolizes the chaos that anxiety causes in our minds. A male figure stands in solitude, leaning on the fence of a road, overlooking the depths of a dark landscape. The painting sets a fearful and almost suffocating atmosphere where each element conveys different features of anxiety and fear.

About Edvard Munch

Best known for his iconic masterpiece “The Scream” Edvard Munch was a Norwegian expressionist. Expressionists convey strong emotional experiences through their work, a style that is in direct contrast to realism that focuses on aesthetics and accuracy. . Munch’s work has also been linked to the international development of Symbolism.

While studying at the Royal School of Art and Design in Kristiania, Munch came in contact with a nihilist, Hans Jaeger under whose influence he began to depict his strong emotional and psychological states in art. This finally gave rise to expressionism in his art style. However most of these emotional states that he depicted on the canvas were rather negative.

Edvard Munch. Image: Nasjonalbiblioteket. CC-BY-SA

Despair Painting Series

Munch’s oil painting ‘Despair’ belongs to a series of similar art pieces as “The Scream” and the two have some common elements. The painting was first exhibited from September 14 to October 4, 1892, in Kristiania.  In 1904, Swedish entrepreneur and art collector Ernest Thiel bought this masterpiece. It is now displayed at the Munch Museum in Oslo. 

Munch shares an instance of a disturbing personal experience through this painting. In one of his literary sketches ‘Violet Diary’, he describes a psychological episode that can be likened to an anxiety attack. He describes an incident that occurred while he was taking a walk with two of his friends. Munch started to feel exceedingly tired in the middle of his stroll. All on a sudden he saw the sky turn a deep red like the color of blood and a feeling of melancholy filled his heart. He leaned against the fence along the path, while his friends didn’t take notice of him and kept moving on, leaving him behind.

The sense of sadness soon turned into fear. He described this feeling as an “infinite scream through nature”. His painting ‘Despair’ is therefore also known as ‘Sick mood at Sunset’. This painting was a precursor to his 1893 work “The Scream”.

Development of Edvard Munch’s Despair

Munch’s translation of his experience in the ‘Violet Diary’ did not satisfy him completely. In 1892 when he was experimenting with different ways to convey exactly how he felt, he drew two rough sketches with a male figure in the front of his painting having strikingly different features. The mood of the two sketches differs drastically from a thoughtful despaired expression to a more fearful and memorable one. Thus, Munch created two versions of the ‘Despair’ before finally creating his most recognizable work, ‘The Scream’ in 1984.

Despair painting by Edvard Munch
“Despair” by Edvard Munch. Public Domain

Even after Munch was able to successfully convey his feelings through the paintings “Despair” and “The Scream”, the image of the blood-red sunset continued to make appearances in several later compositions. In a later version of Despair, the figure in the front turns away from the landscape and looks toward the viewer. His dark-rimmed eyes are made in such a way that it is impossible to understand where exactly the man is looking.

A brighter color palette has been selected in this version as compared to its predecessor. The sky has been made less realistic with stripes of saturated reds and yellows. Thick black contours have been used to highlight the various elements in the painting. The wooden fence on the bridge reflects the sunset with a tinge of orange.

The bridge also helps in intensifying a downward diagonal perspective. This diagonal perspective may be understood in terms of a “falling perspective” which further enhances the fearful atmosphere. Even though the painting is not realistic, it shows how real they were to Munch when he experienced this incident.

The Setting in Despair by Edvard Munch

The painting’s foreground consists of a lonely man in black attire leaning on the fence of a roadway or a bridge. The bridge overlooks a fjord and its depth is enhanced by dark colors and the elevated angle of the scenery. In the distance, some small details such as a pier with ships and the city buildings give the audience a fuller experience of the scene.  

A flaming red-orange sky depicts the sunset which gives the whole picture a yellow-orange tint. The sky is highlighted by allowing portions of the white canvas to peek through the paint. The expressionist is not hesitant in depicting the event just as it felt even when it takes on some dark features. Therefore, the landscape does not represent the exact scenery but allows Munch to portray his emotions and fears on the canvas. 

The main subject softly gazes into the abyss from a steeply falling perspective, feeling completely exhausted both physically and emotionally. In the painting, his face is the only bright spot besides the sky. There are two other faceless figures in the painting that seem to be indifferent to the man in the forefront.

Colors and Contours

The first version of “Despair” by Edvard Munch. Public Domain

A dramatic expression is created by the blood-red cloud formation, which looks like a flame, arching over the setting sun. The upper edge of the cloud formation is framed by a pale blue band. This color palette and the shape of the stokes is repeated in the landscape, in the mountains, and in the green-blue vegetation, as well as in the dark clothes of the characters. Traces of blue, green, brown, and yellow can be seen combining on the edge of the man’s collar in the foreground, leaning over the brown railing.

The restless, abrupt brushstrokes give an unnerving touch to the atmosphere. Besides the thick contours of the railing and the pronounced outline of the fore-figure, the remaining elements have no clear contours and are thus less important in the artist’s vision.

Meaning and Metaphors

Munch has a distinct gloomy perception of the world that has been reflected in most of his paintings. His volatile, chaotic emotions are seen on the canvas through the unique contrast amongst adjacent colors, stark contours, and smooth strokes. Minimal features on the faces of his character somehow enhance its emotional strength.

The main figure in the painting is shown in profile. Even though there are no visible facial features on the man, it somehow expresses the artist’s emotions appropriately. The artist has skillfully depicted a whole range of emotions just through a glimpse of what he experienced. His tired body on the fence and the sinking feeling in his chest are intensified by the emptiness on his face. The lack of visual contact with the viewer allows us to identify with the painting on a deeper level.

The railing and the path give an extremely elevated angle to the scene. This depth gives us a feeling of “about to fall” which adds to the man’s dismay and anxiety. This sharp perspective strikes a contrast with the flat lines in the landscape, another reason why the depth grasps our attention.  

The most important symbolism is in the contrast between the man in the front and retreating figures in the background at the end of the road. This painting has an overpowering sense of loneliness and helplessness before the circumstances of life.

The Others

The theme of separation or differentiation of the self from “the others” is common in many of Munch’s works. The man standing in solitude with a group from which he is excluded represents individuality, loneliness, and melancholy. The perspective pointing downward, the man’s gaze drawn into the depths of the dark nature, and an unbothered group in the corner strengthen the feeling of ‘despair’.

Despair painting by Edvard Munch
The Others, Details in “Despair” by Edvard Munch

The presence of other figures in the top left corner of the painting creates a wedge between “us” and “them”. This separation helps us understand the uniqueness of the experiences we go through. The fact that all of nature seems to mirror what the man feels emphasizes the importance of personal experiences over collective events. Even though Munch set out to express only his experience, the painting is relatable to all of us.

The sky is painted in the colors of fire, which hint toward doom, a feeling of imminent danger. These specific colors help the audience to perceive the anxiety and fear intertwined with despair. The sunset mirrors the painter’s psyche.

Munch’s Legacy

Munch’s paintings “Despair” and “The scream” were clearly very personal to him. The more we think about the painting, and the feelings that the artists has poured on the canvas, the painting becomes personal to us as well. There will be moments of despair, intense anxiety and times where nothing makes sense in everyone’s life. And in these moments one can find themselves to be extremely lonely.

Toward the end of his life, Munch painted several self-portraits, continuing his cycle of self-searching and exposing his emotional and physical state in unflinching ways. In 1963, the city of Oslo built the Munch Museum at Toyen in memory of Munch, who handed down his remaining works to the city.

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