A figure is shown on a bridge in Oslo – this is a recurring image in Munch’s work, worked out most completely in The Scream but also represented in several other paintings.
All of these works appear to have been inspired by his experience of walking along a road near Oslo in the evening with two friends. He felt a slight melancholy and looking up, saw the sky turn blood red.
He looked at the flaming clouds which he felt hung like blood and a sword over the city. He heard an infinite scream from nature.
Munch’s style is an interesting combination of figurative and semi-abstract and this unusual mix contributes to the intense emotional power that his work is capable of arousing. Unlike the Impressionists, he wants to express what he feels and he keeps developing this theme.
Eventually, he develops the experience and the figures into the painting we know as The Scream. Despair is one of the paintings he makes as part of that exploration.
Although the anguish of the people in the paintings springs from Munch’s own experiences and distress, he is able to universalise it, partly by deliberately keeping his figures general rather than specific.
The popularity of his work, despite its sombre themes, bears witness to the fact that he was indeed speaking to a sense of spiritual isolation, common to many people. He was a great influence on the German expressionist movement which appeared in the early 20th century.
Munch's mother died when he was a child and his father, who suffered from extreme religiosity, would apparently remind the children that their mother was looking down at them from above.
This may in part account for the fact that the main figure in Despair and in many other of Munch's works, expresses a miserable self-consciousness. The young girl in the painting Puberty is another example of this quality.
This was not the only way in which Munch’s father contributed to the artist’s mental landscape. He also read the children the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, whose dark and often terrifying narratives may be another influence.
Although Munch is usually considered a Symbolist, his symbolism is essentially a private and personal response to suffering which he has been able to universalise through art.