Status: Finished

Genre: Non-Fiction


Status: Finished

Genre: Non-Fiction


Anxiety; It fills us up, befuddles the mind. Most of us deal with it the usual way, knowing it is our body’s way of saying that you are stressed and need to make some adjustments to maintain homeostasis. Others, particularly artists including Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh, instead channel this tension into inspiration to create some of the most recognizable and emotionally intense works of art in the 19th and 20th centuries.


Anxiety; It fills us up, befuddles the mind. Most of us deal with it the usual way, knowing it is our body’s way of saying that you are stressed and need to make some adjustments to maintain homeostasis. Others, particularly artists including Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh, instead channel this tension into inspiration to create some of the most recognizable and emotionally intense works of art in the 19th and 20th centuries.


Submitted: September 19, 2017

A A A | A A A


Submitted: September 19, 2017



Anxiety; It fills us up, befuddles the mind. Most of us deal with it the usual way, knowing it is our body’s way of saying that you are stressed and need to make some adjustments to maintain homeostasis. Others, particularly artists, instead channel this tension into inspiration to create some of the most recognizable and emotionally intense works of art in the 19th and 20th centuries. Anxiety (noun): distress or uneasiness of mind caused by fear of danger or misfortune; a state of apprehension and psychic tension occurring in some forms of mental disorder; the root of the word meaning ‘to vex or trouble.’

 Several famous and talented artists have suffered this kind of mental anguish due to struggles of trying to earn a living as an artist or to more personal matters such as a death in the family or other unfortunate bouts of unluckiness. These emotional trials and tribulations bleed into and blur the lines between the artist’s life and work, making it an ‘autobiographical anxiety,’ providing insight into the artist’s moods and misfortune during that time in their life when the masterpieces were produced; Effecting the works we all know and love to possess a deeper and less than aesthetic significance.

For starters, Edvard Munch. We might not all know his name but we do know his work “The Scream” also known as “The Scream of Nature.” Born December 12, 1863 in the tiny village of ?dalsbruk in Løten, Norway to Laura and Christian Munch, he was a puny, weak thing due to his mother contracting tuberculosis. Weak health followed him throughout his life from 1876 when he caught consumption (also known as tuberculosis), which nearly killed him, to influenza in 1880. As a result of his weak health as well as his attending and quitting of Technical College led him to decide to become a professional artist. He had always had an interest in drawing, his relatives had always valued his artistic talent, and when he got older fell in love with wood working along with working with oils and pastels. Munch discovered in 1885 that if he was drunk as he painted that it helped his work. “Drink loosened him up and gave him the courage to key up his colour, to use broad contrasts of complementary colour so harsh that the eye could never rest, forcing the spectators eye to contribute to the movement . . .”6 As he got older he became more dependent upon alcohol and from that dependence started suffering from what a doctor correctly diagnosed as dementia paralytica caused by alcohol poisoning. This causes hallucinations, sleeplessness, and in some cases suicidal tendencies6; which eminently aided him to create the swirling, demented images we all know today.

munch1.png Munch’s most famous work, “The Scream of Nature” (1893) sets the scene with a narrow, solitary road bathed in the glow of an intense, rolling orange and blood-red sky. The bay harboring two ships and the sloping mountains below reflect the beautiful colors. A sickly figure stares back at us with a terrified expression, eyes wide, mouth dropped open, his hands pressed to his face. While two people keep walking ahead of him as if nothing frightening is occurring. These combined elements create today’s iconic image for true, unadulterated fear and anxiety.

In Munch’s diary he describes the exact moment which inspired the horrifyingly haunting image: “I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun set. And I felt a touch of melancholy. All at once the sky became blood red. I stood still and leaned against the railing, dead tired. Flaming clouds hung like blood and a sword above the blue-black fjord and the city. My friends went on. I stood there, trembling with anxiety. And I felt as though a great, unending scream was piercing through nature.”5

In another version it provides more details about the site and extraordinary colors: “One evening I was walking out along a mountain road near Christiania (now Oslo) together with two companions . . . the sun went down . . . it was as if a flaming sword of blood slashed open the vault of heaven. The atmosphere turned to blood with glaring tongues of fire. The hills became deep blue, the fjord shaded into cold blue among the yellow and red colors, that garish blood-red, on the road, and the railing, my companions’ faces became yellow-white. I felt something like a great scream and truly I heard a great scream.”5  

This haunting account was actually “inspired by a specific worldwide environmental phenomenon, the red skies of 1883-1884, produced when the volcanic Indonesian island of Krakatoa exploded, sending volcanic aerosols into the atmosphere.”5 Munch never got over that particular sun set and it was not until several years later when he was he was convinced by his friend to paint it. “In the winter of 1891-1892, Munch discussed the event with his friend Christian Skredsvig, whose memoir helps to explicate the process of life becoming art. “‘For a long time he had wanted to paint the memory of a sunset. Red as blood. No, it was coagulated blood. But no one else would perceive it the same way he did. They would think only about clouds. He talked himself sick of this sight that had gripped him with terror. ‘He is striving after the impossible and has despair as his religion,’ I thought but I advised him to paint it—and so he painted his remarkable ‘Scream.’ ”5

So the scream does not come from just the emaciated figure in the foreground but in the tumultuous sky behind him. The figure is not just alone to evoke one’s sense of isolation, but by something quite more compelling. It is stated most eloquently by Di Piero: “In the picture Munch separates himself from his companions because the sublime is not a condition of solidarity: it is the global, near-annihilating experience of one consciousness. The rubbery figure claps his hands over ears not because he is screaming but because the scream lives in the swathes of orange, red, white, and turquoise squalling across the sky, a wrathful coursing of color continued in the fjord and the sea. In a snowstorm, rainstorm, leaf storm, we sometimes sense ourselves not in an extreme event but of it, and the skull in The Scream registers, in its crimped rotundity and light bulb loops of pigment, the racy circulatory rush of the entire scene. It’s all in our head, indeed. The figure is an embodiment of the galvanic surge Munch said he felt that evening . . . the picture does not open up or breathe, it encases and pressurizes.”1

On the other hand, Vincent van Gogh. Everyone at one time other another has heard his name and thought of “Starry Night” (1889), “Still Life: Vase with Twelve Sunflowers” (1888), “The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, at Night” (1888), and “Irises” (1889). Van Gogh was born March 30, 1853 in Groot-Zundert, Holland to Theodorus and Anna van Gogh. He favored his mother in more ways than just looks, later he would also take comfort in brushes, pens, paper, and paint.4 When van Gogh was a young boy “on a few occasions, he took a pencil and sketchpad outside and attempted to render his own world . . . but he turned out to be such a poor draftsman that he destroyed the sketch in frustration soon after making it, and, according to his mother, never made another freehand sketch as long as he lived at the parsonage . . .”4 He later argued, “‘It is really and truly not until later that the artistic sensibility develops and ripens.’”4

In late 1880, van Gogh decided to move to Brussels and become an artist after his failed attempts to become a minister.  By constantly working (he loathed being idle) it helped him stay more emotionally stable. Later he moved to Paris and then to Arles in 1888, spending his money on paint, living on coffee, bread and absinthe.  Despite him feeling sick and strange he sipped turpentine and ate paint. Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, grew more and more worried about his brother and sent Paul Gauguin to watch over him.

Within a month, they were arguing incessantly and van Gogh continually “suffered sleepless nights, attacks of nerves, and strange visions. Over the course of a few months, recorded day by day in excruciating detail, he descends into madness. He comes to distrust his sense and fear his dreams. He imagines himself the unwitting victim of a hypnotist or a sleepwalker living a mysterious double life. Gradually, he slips from vague unease into paranoid fear and then into terrifying delirium . . .”4 and many more bouts of madness. Always blacking out and not remembering what he did, what he said, or what he wanted. Gauguin had begun to fear for his life, convinced of his friend’s madness, believed might kill him in his sleep or during a heated argument.

One fateful evening, Gauguin left the apartment he shared with van Gogh for a walk or perhaps he was trying to escape. Van Gogh, thinking that Gauguin was leaving for good, ran after him and confronted him about him leaving. After a moment of conversation, van Gogh left in a crazed state back to his apartment, grabbed his shaving razor and cut off a good portion off his left ear (mainly the lobe). Lucidity found him again, prompting him to staunch the heavy bleeding. But by then a new bout of delusion captured him, he washed the tiny slab of skin, wrapped it, and went in search of Gauguin to show the price he paid, thinking that it might convince him to reconsider. He went to a brothel that they favored and gave it to Gauguin’s favorite prostitute to give it to Gauguin with the message: “Remember me.”

Later he went back to his apartment, passing out from the blood loss and was found still bleeding heavily and having violent seizures. Taken to a nearby hospital, Gauguin sent Theo a telegram about his brother’s condition. Theo visited and left within nine hours of his arriving, eventually seeing that he couldn’t assuage his brother’s anguish during his episodes of dementia and hallucinations. Van Gogh’s bouts of delirium and mental seizures continued back and forth between some forms of lucidity and confusion. A month later he was released from the hospital, tried to paint again to find some peace but could not and was hospitalized.

 Eventually, the people of Arles signed a secret petition which was filed to the police saying van Gogh was crazy and dangerous to the village. After that he decided to move to Saint-Paul-de-Mausole asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There he received an official diagnosis of “acute mania with generalized delirium”4 as well as a form of epilepsy called “mental epilepsy.”4 It was later revealed by van Gogh that his family had a history of epilepsy and other mental afflictions. His episodes became longer and fiercer, the breaks between them becoming shorter and shorter with him unable to paint, talk coherently, read, and write.

Then, in early May his doctor declared him ‘cured’ and went to visit Theo in Paris. Later he moved to Auvers and visited Paris once in a while, but felt guilty by how much money Theo sent over the years to sustain him, as well as, all the other misery he caused and went back to Auvers depressed and alone; Causing him to use his brushes to “‘express sadness and extreme loneliness,’”4 and for his final paintings to have a darker, more somber color scheme and meaning.

One of his final paintings, “Crows over the Wheat Field” (1890) not known by a lot of people, or if, at all, is known to what art historians consider to be his last painting before his suspected suicide. Van Gogh sets the scene with three solitary roads well worn by wagons or carriages, probably in preparation of harvesting the wheat, separating two wheat fields. The sky is a broody, tumultuous combination of black as well as dark and pale blues, signaling night falling. A golden rod and sunflower yellow adorn the tall wheat fields being blown sideways by a strong wind. Flying over the gloomy countryside are legions of crows slowly fading into the distance, giving a sense of more ominous things to come.

In many cultures around the world crows symbolize death or that death is coming for an individual or their loved ones; Significant considering van Gogh painted the scene about twenty days before his death. What is even more unsettling is the fact of van Gogh’s “emphasis on the emotional intensity created by the inverted perspective of the three diverging paths. “‘The lines . . . converge towards the foreground from the horizon, as if space has suddenly lost its focus and all things turn aggressively upon the beholder.’” ”2

Another disconcerting symbolism about the inverted perspective involves the idea of “using the concept of the vanishing point of perspective as the point, first of disappearance and then of death . . . that this point where life ceases to exist is usually in the distance, safely away from us. The inverted perspective . . . however, has this vanishing point of death at the location of the painter/spectator and may, therefore, refer to Vincent’s own death.”2; Instilling a great sense of anxiety and uneasiness in the viewer and probably the painter himself. Also, during this time in van Gogh’s life he feared that after Theo’s marriage and the impending birth of his nephew, he would be abandoned financially and almost forgotten due to his brother’s new responsibilities. Adding a new layer upon the point of death as “ejection from the womb and an irrevocable loss of the fusion with a maternal figure.”2 The maternal figure to van Gogh being Theo due to the fact that most of his family had shunned and banished him due to past discrepancies.

In one of van Gogh’s last letters to Theo he wrote about his painting and his feelings behind the vast, foreboding landscape: “They are vast fields of wheat under trouble skies, and I did not need to go out of my way to express sadness and extreme loneliness . . . I almost think these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, the health and restorative forces that I see in the country.”2 His life and heart went into his works, clear emotion and inner turmoil pouring out in torrents. “To Vincent, art and life were inseparable, and he claimed that his painting was emotionally restorative. Therefore, it can be argued that an intense suicidal urge was alleviated by the very act of painting Crows, thereby making it possible to postpone the suicide.”

Another facet to this fear and anxiety of being replaced and forgotten is the fact that van Gogh was a replacement child. “Not only was he born one year to the day after the stillborn death of a brother . . . and not only was he given the exact same name, but he probably also frequently saw the gravestone with his own name inscribed. Thus, he began life with a birth/death theme . . . the birth of Theo’s son, also named Vincent, re-created the theme of death at birth, an issue Vincent had struggled with his whole life. This birth, combined with all the losses he had been recently suffering, seems to . . . be a culminating event, especially as the new Vincent had been seriously ill and was threatened with an early death.”2

These and other “clusters of pressures that led to his recurring mental breakdowns and self-destruction” 2 and “all of these stresses can be seen to be derived from situations in which Vincent felt the impending loss of an important nurturant figure, and include the departures of Gauguin and the post official, Roulin. More important, however, were the perceived threats of loss of symbiotic and maternal support from his brother, Theo. These included  Theo’s wish to leave his paid position, his life-threatening illness, his engagement and marriage to Jo (Joanna), and most important, Jo’s pregnancy and delivery of his namesake replacement. These may have all been perceived by Vincent as omens that he would soon lose Theo’s monetary, artistic, and emotional support and be left to his own resources. The ultimate source of this threat was the birth of a rival, the nephew who threatened to supplant him and deprive him of support, just he had replaced his stillborn brother.”  2

Leading back to the viewer and van Gogh standing at the point of death, “. . . the climax of an act of forceful separation and rejection; Vincent has just been expelled from the womb. We may speculate that this is his ultimate identification with the stillborn first Vincent and his identical infanticidal wish directed at the third Vincent, now turned against himself in the act of suicide. As his brother was a stillborn and he wished the same fate to befall his nephew, Vincent must now suffer the identical fate: to die at birth. We can speculate that Crows symbolically represents this moment of birth and death, possibly as a reparation.” 2

But not least, Jacek Yerka. Not very well known in Western civilization, practically a hermit, but definitely one of the most talented artists’ surrealism has ever seen. Born in Torún, Poland in 1952, he grew up surrounded by art supplies due to his parents’ occupations as graphic designers. Prior to becoming a full-time artist in 1980, he studied fine art and graphics and many more artistic mediums. “While at university, Yerka resisted the constant pressures of his instructors to adopt the less detailed, less realistic techniques that characterize so much of contemporary art. Instead, he stubbornly continued to work in the classic, meticulous Flemish style he still favors to this day. In the end, it was his teachers who eventually relented, finally recognizing their determined student as a brilliant (although troubling) talent.”8

“The pastoral atmosphere of the Polish countryside provides a solid, mimetic foundation for much of Yerka’s art. However, it is his own uniquely evocative dreams that limn the complex, often arcane imagery of his work. One need only glance at the luminous surfaces of Yerka’s canvases to perceive his adoration of , resonance with, the master painters of the 15th and 16th centuries, key factors in the development of this surrealist Cagliostro. Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, Hugo van der Goes and Jan van Eyck were powerful, early influences.”8

twilight-in-the-nursery.jpg Yerka’s inspiration also comes from events in his life. The birth of his son, Philip, in 1990 was happily received, resulting in Yerka painting “Twilight in the Nursery” (1990). He sets the scene with a baby’s nursery, the egg representing the child, floating slightly above the crib’s mattress. A brass pendulum swings from the sky blue ceiling, slowly descending, over the egg’s crib. Nature seemingly has climbed through the open window, crawling over the furniture with a leafy ivy and overgrown grass covers the floor in a fluffy, cool carpet. The bedroom walls give the illusion of being outside in nature while still being confined in the peaceful nursery.  Outside the sun has set not too long ago, the moon high in the sky, almost transparent against the sky blue of the evening.

He explains his true intention for this work and the unseen mistake, which ultimately, did not end up being clear until it was too late: “Some time ago I painted  my then-new car as if it had been damaged in a crash. Six years later, I had an accident in it and the resultant damage exactly mimicked the paint scheme. This is painting which foretold the future. I did this piece right after the birth of my long-awaited son. It was intended to be a painting depicting the evening quiet in a child’s room. Only the rustling of leaves and the ticking of clocks can be heard. At the time, I didn’t realize that the pendulum from the ceiling was slowly descending, just as in Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’ The pendulum touched my son on August 9th, 1993. The room has since become forever silent.”7 Nothing else can be said about the loss of his child. Anxiety might not be in the painting brazenly, but looking at the pendulum’s placement, and after reading Yerka’s statement, it undoubtedly makes the viewer look at the painting a different way. Feel his belated anxiety and grief.

Together, even though these three paintings have different levels of anxiety, they all irrevocably depict an anguish and grief mirroring their life’s events and their moods, which the viewer will never fully comprehend but will feel in their bones. The similarities besides the obvious anxiety connection include: the use of symbolism to act as clues and punctuate what it is that makes the artist feel the way they feel and what is troubling them mentally or emotionally, the use of color theory to evoke emotion in the observer to make them experience what the artist felt, and painting techniques (i.e. short, choppy strokes = chaos and long, languorous strokes = peace) to illustrate either instill a sense of serenity or turmoil.

Which it is these characteristics, added up in the end, that create the effective and emotionally gut wrenching pieces we all known today. That remind us of the lows of the life and how art makes it a little easier to overcome such crushing blows. The above mentioned three artists and their paintings clearly do just that, reminding us of that time of anxiety and anguish, letting the onlooker soak it in to feel it as well and know what they are saying, in spite that you may not know the reason behind it. “Every artist dips his brush into his owl soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.”9 Anxiety; It fills us up, befuddles the mind, inspires us, drives us, and ultimately can lead one down very dark paths if we let it.

Works Cited

1. Di Piero, W. S. "On Edvard Munch." The Yale Review 98.1 (2010): 58-64. Web.

2. Friedman, Stanley M. "Form and Content in Van Gogh's Crows over the Wheat Field." Annual of Psychoanalysis 28 (2000): 259-66. Advanced Placement Source. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.

3. Munch, Edvard. "The Scream." Edvard Munch: Theme and Variation. Ed. Klaus Albrecht. Schro?der and Antonia Hoerschelmann. Comp. Christoph Asendorf. Vienna: Albertina, 2003. 245-47. Print.

4. Naifeh, Steven, and Gregory White. Smith. Van Gogh: The Life. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.

5. Olson, Marilynn S., Donald W. Olson, and Russell L. Doescher. “On the Blood-Red Sky of Munch’s The Scream.” Environmental History 12 (January 2007): 131-35.Web.

6. Prideaux, Sue, and Edvard Munch. Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream. New Haven [Conn.: Yale UP, 2005. Print.

7. Yerka, Jacek and James R. Cowan. The Fantastic Art of Jacek Yerka. Beverly Hills, CA: Morpheus International, 1994. Print.

8. Yerka, Jacek, and Harlan Ellison. Mind Fields. Las Vegas, NV: Morpheus, 1994. Print.

9. Beecher, Henry Ward. Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit. New York: D. Appleton, 1887. Web.

© Copyright 2019 Haylie Ryann. All rights reserved.

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