One of the world's most famous paintings and an icon of modern art, Edvard Munch's The Scream has become a radical and timeless expression of human anxiety. At the upper left corner of its frame, there is a tiny inscription that art historians have mostly ignored for years. Written in pencil, it reads: "Could only have been painted by a madman!"
Following years of speculation, curators at the National Museum of Norway have confirmed that this small and barely visible sentence on the canvas was written by the artist himself. This revelation is a result of thorough research and conservation that the museum has undertaken in preparation for its installment in the new National Museum of Norway due to open in Oslo in 2022.
Mai Britt Guleng, curator at the National Museum says:
The writing is without a doubt Munch’s own. The handwriting itself, as well as events that happened in 1895, when Munch showed the painting in Norway for the first time, all point in the same direction.
One of the most celebrated works of modern times, Edvard Munch's The Scream has become a symbol of existential angst and has been called "the Mona Lisa of modern art." It is an autobiographical, expressionistic construction based on the artist's actual experience of a scream piercing through nature while on a walk, after his two companions, seen in the background, had left him. In his diary, Munch wrote that the painting was inspired by "a gust of melancholy."
The artist painted four versions of the work from 1893 to 1910. The first version, painted in tempera on panel with pastels, is the one owned by the National Museum in Oslo, and is the only one that bears this inscription.
Curators at the National Museum of Norway have used infrared technology to analyze the handwriting and compare it with Munch’s notes and letters, as well as details of events surrounding its first public showing, concluding it was definitely written by the artist.
The catalyst for the inscription on The Scream is thought to be an incident in 1895 when Munch exhibited the painting for the first time at the Blomqvist gallery in Oslo. During a debate about the exhibition at the University of Oslo’s Students Association, one medical student speculated on Munch’s mental state, claiming that his paintings proved he was not of sound mind.
Profoundly hurt by the accusations, Munch returned to the incident again and again in letters and diary entries. It is believed that he added the seemingly ironic inscription shortly after, reflecting both pain at being attacked and fear of being regarded as mentally ill. The artist took this very seriously because there was a history of illness in his family, and he was very anxious. He needed to take control of his own self-understanding and also how others understood him. In 1908, he had a nervous breakdown and had to be hospitalized.
The conclusion about the writing certainly brings new perspectives about Munch's work.
The painting will go on display in the National Museum’s new building due to open in Oslo in 2022, providing the public an opportunity to see the writing in person. The canvas will be accompanied by a number of Munch’s most iconic works, such as Madonna, The Dance of Life and Self-Portrait with Cigarette, all brought together in the new Munch room.
Featured image: IR photography at the National Museum. Photo Annar Bjorgli, courtesy The National Museum.