Angst 1894 by Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Oil on canvas (via Wikimedia Commons)

“Angst” is of course a German word, though it has become acclimatised in English. Wherever it occurs, it carries the same meaning: a sense of undefined anxiety or dread. It’s a state of mind that permeates the ordinary events and circumstances of life, that weighs us down without offering a specific object or source of concern. With that definition in mind, I think this picture a better depiction of the vague disquiet that seems to have pervaded Munch’s life than the more famous The Scream, of 1893, which shows a bridge or pier that appears in several of his canvases including this one. In The Scream, a single anguished figure is protesting against the world, against existence. Here, the world, in the form of a crowd of half-glimpsed corpse-like figures, floods along the bridge towards us like a funeral procession slowly materialising to invade our space and fill our consciousness.  

Munch had already featured the same oncoming crowd in an Oslo street scene of 1892, Evening in the Karl Johann Strasse, and another picture of that year, Despair, shows the same bridge and sunset sky that we see here and in the The Scream, with a solitary figure leaning over the rail that is a leit-motif of this series. A specific vision was his starting-point: “The sky was blood-red,” he wrote, “I saw the flaming clouds like blood and a sword, the blue-black fjord [the Oslofjord] and the city; my friends went on, and I stood there, shuddering with dread, all the winds of Nature bound up in a vast, never-ending cry.” 

Much is the leading figure of the Expressionist movement as it manifested itself in northern Europe, a contemporary of the dramatists Wedekind, a German, and the Swede Strindberg. It was a darker version of late nineteenth-century Symbolism, which in France and other countries forged a language both literary and pictorial to express erotic dreams and nightmares, brooding symphonies, in words or paint, concerned with love and death – themes that pervade Munch’s own work as well, though in Munch’s Norway the twilight of a far northern country and the inhibitions of a deeply Calvinistic religion combine to create a frightening unease, a sense of silent dread – a visualisation, precisely, of an indefinite angst.  

But the feeling of unease is the result in Munch’s case of the clash between the profound inhibitions of his culture and upbringing, and his determination to break out of that restrictive cage. He had experienced great sorrow in his own life, with his mother and a sister dying early of tuberculosis, and many of the characters in his pictures seem to be dying of that fearsome disease, their faces skull-like, pallid and staring. They are the population of the city and landscape that he envisaged particularly in the series of nightmare-like scenes on a bridge that I’ve just described, and they have an enigmatic relationship to the solitary figure that leans on the rail or sends that scream into the void. Munch’s isolation is defined in terms of the absence of his companions, and this strange assembly with its grim indifference to emotion seems to pin-point their negative yet frightening role in the artist’s lonely misery. 

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