What makes Edvard Munch so great

Fear in the modern age"Along a bottomless depth"

The open mouth gapes like a huge hole. The two hands hold the oversized skull together on the right and left like a pair of pliers. The pupils lie rigidly in their circular cavities. The slender figure has little contour, hardly any firmness, as if it had driven all its strength into this great scream.

Edvard Munch was 30 years old when he painted his most famous picture in 1893 - "The Scream". The painting, held in oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, became a symbol of the basic feeling of modernity - fear. Something for the artist that he has known from his earliest youth:

"The fear of life has been with me since I could think."

It was the same on that evening. He is traveling with two friends, a little way outside the city of Christiania, later Oslo, where he has lived for a number of years:

"Then the sun went down, the sky suddenly turned blood red. I stopped, leaned dead tired against the railing. The sky lay like blood and tongues of fire over the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends went on, and I stood alone, trembling." with fear. I felt as if a mighty, infinite scream went through nature. "

This scream is terrible. It has long since escaped through the gaping mouth into the world and has grasped everything - the deep dark fjord, the blood-red sky. The world has taken up this scream and now throws it back a thousand times over to those tormented by fear.

A weak child

On December 12, 1863, Edvard Munch was born in the small Norwegian municipality of Løten as the second eldest son of medical officer Christian Munch and his wife Laura. A weak child.

"They hurried to baptize me because they believed I was going to die."

Undated photo by the Norwegian painter and graphic artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). (NTB / AFP)

Shortly after his sixth birthday, he loses his mother. The strongly religious father raises him and his four siblings in a strictly pietistic manner. Edvard early felt repulsed by his pious rigorism:

"One evening I got into an argument with my father about how long the unbelievers would have to suffer in Hell. My father said that these people had to suffer a thousand times a thousand years. The argument ended with me slamming the door I went home. My father had gone to bed. I opened the door quietly. My father was on his knees in front of the bed and prayed. I couldn't find any rest or sleep. "

No stop in the Christian religion

The threat of eternal hellish punishment and the promise of heavenly reward have long appeared to him as stale and void. He has long suspected that he will not find any support in the Christian faith, that religion cannot give him a solid foundation for his life.

But what can still give people support and what can serve as a meaningful basis for their world? At a time in which the "fundamentum inconcussum", the unshakable foundation of secular reason since modern times, is shaking. In a century that saw both the death of Hegel and the birth of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. The philosopher Karl Jaspers writes about this:

"Consciousness split in the 19th century: Belief in the dawning of a great future is opposed to the horror of the abyss from which there is no longer any salvation. With Hegel, something came to an end, which despite all the differences over the millennia The whole thing was. "..." We see Kierkegaard and Nietzsche like petrels before a weather catastrophe: They show the restlessness, the haste and something like circling and tumbling and falling. "

Everything seems to plunge into the depths - the blue-black water masses of the fjord and with them the screaming man. The path and the railing also seem sloping. Everything unfolds this downward pull, into which the viewer is also drawn.

Baseless, abysmal fear

But why this terrible fear? The screaming man doesn't know. Fear is strangely baseless. Unlike fear, which always has a reason and is triggered by something specific - a clearly recognizable danger, an imminent event - fear is indefinite. It grabs you for no reason and is literally abysmal.

It was Sören Kierkegaard who was the first to make fear a philosophical topic and in 1844 dedicated his own book to it - "The Concept of Fear". He also made the distinction between fear and anxiety:

"The term fear is completely different from fear and similar terms that refer to something specific. Fear can be compared to being dizzy. The one whose eye suddenly looks down into a yawning depth becomes dizzy."

The Danish philosopher, essayist, theologian and religious writer Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855). (imago / Leemage)

Half a century before Edvard Munch, Sören Kierkegaard was born on May 5, 1813 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Like Munch, brought up by a puritan father with "strictness and seriousness" in the Christian faith, he already felt as a child that the god-fearing but at the same time joyless closed father was afflicted by a deep sadness. Its "silent despair", as he later calls it, not only overshadows the father's life, but also damages the child's trust in God.

Kierkegaard - a desperate man

Kierkegaard becomes a desperate man himself. Not one who doubts God, but one who, out of desperation, will ask all his life what it means to be a true Christian. One who looks down into a yawning abyss and is at the same time besieged by blatant questions:

"My life has been brought to the extreme, I disgusted with existence, it is tasteless, without salt and meaning. Where am I? What does that mean: the world? Who fooled me into the whole thing and now lets me stand there? Who am I? How did I get into the world, why wasn't I asked? Doesn't anyone want to answer? "

Nobody hears the scream. Not the two figures who continue on their way in the background of the picture. Not the sky that flares up threateningly at the end of the world, with its burning red color covering the entire horizon. The scream fades unheard of in the turmoil of the elements around him.

Something completely different had been promised to the people.

"In the world you are afraid, but be confident, I have overcome the world." (Gospel of John)

Jesus addressed these words to his disciples in his so-called farewell speeches from the Gospel of John. Let all fear go, because "the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand," says the evangelist Mark. Therefore: "Repent and believe in the message of salvation."

Fear that goes deep

But what happens when what is promised does not materialize? What if people have to settle further in the world for an indefinite period of time? Then, instead of the confidence of salvation that sustains, is there another threat of fear that draws into the depths?

In the middle of the 17th century - at the height of modern certainty of reason - the philosopher Blaise Pascal created a concise picture of what, from his point of view, it would mean for people if they had to do without belief in the promised salvation. In his "Pensées" published in 1670, eight years after his death, he writes:

"How could we be happy to expect nothing but misery without help? In a terrible uncertainty about anything and everything. I see this terrible expanse of space that lock me in, and I find myself tied to a corner of this vast space without me knows why here and not there, and why the short period of time I was destined to live at this time. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces makes me shudder.

Contemporary representation of the French philosopher, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal. (picture alliance / dpa / B0100_Ullstein)

This eternal silence and this terrible uncertainty must be kept in mind, says Pascal. Because all rational certainties, the philosopher as a devout Christian is convinced, cannot give man an answer to his pressing life questions:

"The final conclusion of reason is that it recognizes that there are myriad things that are beyond its capacity."

In the modern age, fear descends on people

So fear throws its threatening shadow in advance. It finally breaks down on people in the modern age, when, along with the trust in reason, the global trust that has grown stronger in the modern age also disappears. Kierkegaard reveals the depths of fear. Friedrich Nietzsche will speak of God's death. Karl Jaspers pointedly:

The philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), one of the most important representatives of existentialism, in an undated recording. (picture alliance / dpa)

"Kierkegaard sees his age plunging into the nothingness of bottomless reflection, total leveling, fictions that have no cover, the universal godless 'as if'. Nietzsche followed a few decades later without knowing Kierkegaard. He saw the coming of the European nihilism, in which he made the relentless diagnosis of his time. "

The hands on the right and left of the head try in vain to soften the force of the scream. The lurching figure tries in vain to find support somewhere. Filled with fear, the eyes widened in terror stare into the abyssal nothing that opens up before them.

"Fear is the vertigo of freedom"

But the fear has not yet been fully explored. The nameless horror that grips the vertigo deeper than any nameable fear in the abyss of fear.

"What is the reason for that?" asks Sören Kierkegaard in "The Concept of Fear". What is the real reason for this nameless horror? His answer is - the real, deepest reason is that the fearful person looks into the nothing of his own abyss:

"It is as much his eye as the abyss; for what if he had not stared down! Fear is the vertigo of freedom that arises when freedom looks down into its own possibility."

So when people are afraid, they experience two things: First, that all the reasons that give their life in the world - religions, traditions, values ​​and knowledge - cannot turn into anything. On the other hand, that it is precisely because of this that he is confronted with himself and his own abysmal freedom.

"Learn to be afraid"

But this experience is frightening. How quickly do people cling to traditional beliefs and reassuring pseudo-certainties. Nevertheless, according to Kierkegaard, the fear experience would be indispensable for every individual who does not want to evade himself and his pressing life questions:

"This is an adventure that everyone has to endure: learning to be afraid so that one is not lost. Either because one has never been afraid or because one has sunk into fear. But anyone who learned to be really afraid has that Highest learned. Fear is the possibility of freedom. "

Behind the screaming man: two figures with hats and coats. They ran far too quickly. Are on the way to where they find their own kind. They did not look into the abyss. They also quickly turned their backs on the screaming man. Don't want to see anything, hear nothing, know nothing of your fear.

Kierkegaard was thirty-one years old when he wrote his book "The Concept of Fear". Edvard Munch was thirty when he painted "Schrei". His picture has often been associated with Kierkegaard's handwriting. Munch himself always emphasized that he did not know the philosopher at the time:

"I only made the acquaintance of Kierkegaard in later years, and I find strange parallels with him. Now I understand that my work has been compared with him so often. I didn't understand that before."

Loss of truths that have been valid for centuries

Both experienced the same thing - the loss of truths that have been valid for centuries and the fear that this loss can lead to the individual for his or her life. Nevertheless, there is an essential difference between the Norwegian artist and the Danish philosopher.

Sören Kierkegaard sees himself as a Christian - albeit as a desperate Christian all his life. "To be cured of this disease," he notes, "would be the Christian's bliss". He has not received such a healing. He remains a questioner. But someone who has learned in fear not to sink into the nothingness of nihilism, but to remain open to the possibility of an unadulterated experience of faith:

"He who is educated through fear will therefore only be able to rest in reconciliation. It means to walk the path lonely and alone. To have no one visible to ask for advice; to despair in vain, because no one can help . Yes, there is no one who can advise you on the only important thing, can advise you decisively on matters of your happiness. "

Fear - a lifelong companion

Such a prospect remains closed to Edvard Munch. For as long as he can remember, fear has been a constant companion to him too - it is his abyss, his nothing. In his life-long diary, he gives an account of it:

"My path led along an abyss, along a bottomless depth. Now and then I left the path, threw myself into the swarm of life. I turned to people, houses, mountains and meadows. But I always had to go back up again the path along the abyss. This is my path that I must follow until I fall into the depths. "

Melancholy, shy of people, often ill since childhood, Munch repeatedly lived through times of crisis on this path. Dissatisfied with the confined space at home, he travels around restlessly at a young age, gets entangled in unhappy love stories, numb himself with alcohol. Collapses and stays in sanatoriums follow.

Art saves from falling

But what saves him from falling, from sinking into the pure nothingness of fear, is art. In the depths of fear he learns the highest at the same time - not to be lost in it, but to become free for his very own possibility. That means: to become free for one's way as an artist. From this experience his most famous picture "The Scream" grew.

So he has to shout out the scream. Trembling with fear. That tremendous scream. He has to scream out with his mouth open until his force - flame red and dark with setting - grips the whole world and he himself has become completely empty. Empty to the brink of its existence and for this reason free.

In his book "The Spiritual Situation of Time", Karl Jaspers emphasizes:

"Whoever grabs the fear out of feeling the possible has courage in the knowledge: Only those who want the impossible can achieve the possible. Today, people are not shaped by making what suits them from the tradition of their world their own. He is on his own as an individual in a new sense: He has to help himself - free in the emptiness of nothing. "

Sören Kierkegaard, the founder of modern existential philosophy, had already formulated:

"The task is to understand oneself in existence."

"That my art will bring light to me"

On the threshold of the 20th century, Edvard Munch, a pioneering modernist artist, faced this challenge and turned his experiences into visual reality in his painting. Not through "beautiful pictures", as he emphasizes, that you can "hang on the wall of a living room", but:

"We want to lay the foundations for an art that captivates and grabs people. Through my art, I have tried to explain life and its meaning to myself. In doing so, I also wanted to help others deal with their lives. By reflecting on it and in my art there was an urge and the desire that my art would bring me light - darkness and light for people too. "

So look at the screaming man - because you are too. Don't turn away like the two figures in the background. From your questions, from your fear. Know yourself in this screaming face of your own abyss, the depth of which makes you dizzy. This is an experience that you too have to endure: learn to be really afraid so that you are not lost.