(CNN) - "The Scream" by Edvard Munch is one of the most famous images in the history of art, and even has its own emoji.
If you thought the artwork showed a figure screaming, however, it turns out you may have misinterpreted Munch's work.
With "The Scream", Munch is recalling a personal memory of a spectacular sunset in Oslo which gave the sky and clouds a dramatic red hue, according to Giulia Bartrum, curator of a forthcoming exhibition devoted to the artist at the British Museum in London.
"The blood-red sky had the effect of making him feel hugely anxious," Bartrum told CNN via telephone. "The artwork is very much a reflection of Munch's personal mood."
And the artist wrote an inscription in German on the black and white lithograph version which reads: "I felt the great scream throughout nature." Hands over its ears, the ghostly figure is in fact blocking out nature's scream.
'Moments of despair'
The waviness of the figure is a visual representation of what he is feeling, said Bartrum, and the black and white bands behind are almost vibrating like a tuning fork.
"It has an obvious emotive impact," said Bartrum, who added that it's very easy to misinterpret the artwork as a figure screaming.
"You can associate it with your own mood," said Bartrum. "Everyone has had those moments of despair."
Over the years the image has also been used in political campaigns, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, but Munch was expressing a personal emotion and did not intend it to be used as a public message.
He was a private man, according to Bartrum, and even during his lifetime he feared that he had lost control of his work even though the reproduction of images was much slower than it is now. And it's easy to appropriate such an emotive image for a cause.
"You could take it in a personal way, you could take it in a political way," said Bartrum. "The image is there and it will be used."
However the curator warned against drawing any connection between the arrival of "The Scream" in the UK and ongoing wrangling over Britain's exit from the European Union.
"We did not plan to have the exhibition at this time," said Bartrum, calling the timing "purely fortuitous."
Work on the exhibition started five years ago, and it will run from April 11 until July 21. "Edvard Munch: love and angst" is a collaborative effort between the British Museum and the Munch Museum in Oslo, which has lent almost 50 prints from its collection.
The upcoming show will be the largest exhibition of Munch's prints in the UK for 45 years, and will also feature other highlights such as "Vampire II," "Madonna" and "Head by Head."
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