Edvard Munch graffitied his own “The Scream” painting, experts conclude

Edvard Munch The ScreamPhoto: Nasjonalmuseet/Børre Høstland (Creative Commons - Attribution CC-BY)

A small message is hidden in a corner of famous painting The Scream.

The tiny, pencil inscription sits on the top-left corner of Edvard Munch‘s (1863, Ådalsbruk, Norway – 1944, Oslo, Norway) iconic painting The Scream. The mystery message reads: “Kan kun være malet af en gal Mand!”, meaning, “Could only have been painted by a madman!” 

Edvard Munch The Scream
The message is hidden in a red cloud. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet (Creative Commons – Attribution CC-BY)

Debates over message origin

For decades, most art experts ignored the words, which are barely visible to the naked eye, but some debated over their origin.

Was it a museum-goer who didn’t appreciate the work and vandalized it?

Could it have been Munch himself?

Mai Britt Guleng, the curator at the National Museum of Norway, explained in a press statement: “We seldom find such inscriptions on paintings, particularly not on one of the world’s most famous ones. Given that it’s such an important work in the history of international art, the inscription has received remarkably little attention.”

The enigma unraveled

Guleng and a team of curators, after carrying out research, announced in February that the message was indeed written by the artist himself.

Their research included taking infrared photographs, which are often used to reveal a painting’s secrets, of The Scream. Infrared photographs can reveal changes in composition and parts that were painted over, and they can make certain elements much clearer – such as the carbon from the pencil used to make the madman inscription.

To confirm the message was Munch’s, the team compared his handwriting across diaries and letters penned by the artist.

Edvard Munch The Scream
A close-up of Munch’s signature on The Scream. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet (Creative Commons – Attribution CC-BY)

Why did Munch add the graffiti?

The first version of The Scream was painted in 1893. Munch exhibited this painting, and several others, at a number of showings abroad before presenting them to a Norwegian audience in Kristiania (today Oslo) in 1985.

Public criticism followed Munch’s domestic exhibition. Critic Henrik Grosch (then director of the Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design) was one of the sharpest. Grosch wrote that after seeing Munch’s paintings, one could no longer “consider Munch a serious man with a normal brain”. This take was not unique to Grosch; many exhibition-goers felt similarly.

Following Munch’s exhibition and its fallout, the Student Society in Kristiania hosted a discussion about his art.

During the Student Society meeting, varying opinions were expressed. Some were positive towards Munch’s art: poet Sigbjørn Obstfelder, among others, praised it. Others offered stark criticism. Johan Scharffenberg, a medical student at the time, questioned whether Munch was a normal human being in reference to the artist’s Self-Portrait with Cigarette.

Edvard Munch Self-Portrait with Cigarette
Munch’s Self-Portrait with Cigarette, created in 1895 in oil on canvas. Size is 110.5 x 85.5. Photo: Nasjonalmuseet/Børre Høstland (Creative Commons – Attribution CC-BY)

The negative opinions weighed heavily on Munch, who may have been in attendance at the Student Society discussion and heard them himself. Even decades later, Munch continued to defend himself against these critiques in his personal diaries.

“The theory is that Munch wrote this [madman message] after hearing Scharffenberg’s judgment on his mental health, sometime in or after 1895. It is reasonable to assume that he did it quite soon after, either during or following the exhibition in Kristiania”, Guleng noted in the press statement.,

“Munch was also generally concerned about the idea of hereditary disease in the family. Both his father and grandfather suffered from what was then referred to as melancholy and his sister Laura Munch had been admitted to Gaustad Psychiatric Hospital”, she continued.

An opportunity for new creative interpretations

The National Museum’s version of The Scream (and the only one with an inscription) is the first Munch ever painted. There is a total of four versions, painted between 1893 and 1910.

Munch’s Self-Portrait with Cigarette and The Scream (the original) will be on display for visitors when the new National Museum of Norway opens in 2022.

If you’re lucky enough to visit the museum and view the painting, keep in mind the message that Munch left. The revelation that the inscription is his own opens the door for new creative interpretations of the artist’s life, painting process, and work.

“The inscription can be read as an ironic comment, but at the same time as an expression of the artist’s vulnerability. Writing on the finished painting shows that creating for Munch was a continuous process”, Guleng concludes.

Can’t get enough art? Check out our total guide to museums in Norway here – over 200 are on the list!

Source: #Norway Today / #NorwayTodayTravel

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