The Influence of Krakatoa Eruption on Munch’s The Scream

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Almost everyone is familiar with Edvard Munch’s famous painting titled The Scream. The iconic expressionist image of the figure holding his hands up to his face as he seems to be frozen in the midst of a deep, primal scream of anguish is one of the most recognizable, and parodied, works of art from the 19th century. There is just something about that image that speaks to the insanity taking place around us on a daily basis and that usually controlled urge to follow the main figure’s lead and scream out loud. The background of Munch’s painting reminds many people of the work of Vincent Van Gogh, dominated by the thick red and orange swirls in the sky that sets the background. That brightly hued sky seems to speak to future of atomic mushroom clouds, acid rain, and pollution in addition to being an additional metaphor for the fiery eruption of violence by the screamer.

In fact, the vibrant colors of the palette that Munch turned to for his sky was in all probability a look backward rather than forward. What Munch may actually have been painting was far less metaphorical than a realistic portrayal of what he saw when Munch painted The Scream in the early 1890s, but the genesis behind that peculiar aspect of that sky quite possibly took place not just a decade earlier, but half a world away. In August 1883 a geological event took place that remains the most devastating natural disaster since human civilization. Not only was the Earth’s climate affected by what took place, but so was the world of art. The event was the explosive eruption of an volcano on the island of Krakatoa.

The reason behind the unusually powerful eruption was that a lava plug had developed over the course of a few hundred years, acting the same way that a bottle cap acts when you shake up a soda. Except that no one was there to release the lava plug and so the pressure just kept building and building until the plug could no longer stand it. The eruption of Krakatoa is estimated to have produced the loudest sound ever heard by human ears. The explosion produced tidal waves, gigantic balls of fire, and turned day into night over Indonesia for a week. The explosion sent massive amounts of ash, rock and dust high into the atmosphere, affecting climate conditions around the world, but especially in the Northern Hemisphere. The average temperature there dropped by two degrees, destroying crops and bringing snow during the summer.

A volcanic explosion similar to what happened on Krakatoa was responsible for the so-called Year Without a Summer and this unusual cold weather was directly responsible for creating the conditions that led to the infamous bet over who could write the most terrifying story that eventually led Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. The eruption on Krakatoa caused glowing red sunsets in the Northern Hemisphere for years afterward. Besides Munch’s most famous representation, there are literally thousands of paintings from the late 1880’s that portray a similarly vivid sunset that were not the result of the imagination of the painter so much as they were recreations of what the artists were actually seeing.