“Can only be painted by a crazy,” reads the message.
The author of the cryptic note etched into “The Scream” by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch has fascinated art historians debating his identity for 117 years. Now researchers believe they know who is behind the enigmatic sentence.
The “Scream” was unveiled in 1893, inspired by a trip Munch took at sunset with two friends. When he stopped with exhaustion to lean against a fence, he later said he saw “blood and tongues of fire”
No one seems to have noticed the streaked phrase until a decade later, when a Danish art critic suggested that it was probably written by a vandal’s “tactless hand”. Curator Gerd Woll supported the theory in 2008 when she suggested that the inscription did not come from the artist.
Curators at the National Museum in Norway announced on Monday that they had discovered the person’s identity while preparing the expressionist masterpiece for exhibition in a museum building to open next year.
The conclusion took more than a century because art historians had long been tired of examining Munch’s biography. They did not even try to examine the inscription, which was written in old-fashioned Norwegian, said Mai Britt Guleng, a curator at the museum specializing in ancient masters of modern art.
“We wanted to ask other questions,” she said in an interview. “But now, maybe we’re ready to return to a more personal skill and try to understand him as an artist who created by not following the rules.”
Curators used an infrared camera to take pictures of the painting, giving them a better view of the inscription. Then they compared the sample of thousands of pages with Munch’s notes and letters.
The handwriting was a struggle. The vandal was the painter himself.
There had been some obvious traces. The small size of the expression would have been an unusual choice for someone seeking to donate the artwork, Guleng said. Munch also never chose to paint over the sentence while he was alive, suggesting he was feeling well.
Although some suggested that Munch might have written the sentence, they provided little evidence to support the idea, Guleng said. As far as she knows, no one ever asked Munch directly if the inscription was his – and he may not even remember writing it.
“He may have been drunk doing it,” Guleng said. “It could have been a moment of emotional distress. But he never mentioned it later. ”
Guleng theorizes that Munch wrote the sentence shortly after an unpleasant confrontation in 1895, while he was showing the painting for the first time in the city of Kristiania, now Oslo. During a public discussion of the play, a young medical student wondered aloud that the grotesque painting showed that Munch must be confused.
The student suggested that Munch was abnormal, prone to hallucinations and even degenerated, a suggestion that Guleng said suggested the importance of his work would die with him. The student may have wondered that Munch should be hospitalized and prevented from making art.
That Munch had tried to help people better understand his work increased the swing of criticism, said Jill Lloyd, a 20th-century writer and curator specializing in Munch and art. Munch had begun to present his work as a collection that reflected the cycle of life and death.
“If people could see his whole vision of life, they might find the paintings easier to understand,” Lloyd said. “So he was shocked and hurt when people said he was angry.”
A thin-skinned man, Munch carried the disapproval for years, in part because his family had a history of mental illness that he feared would find him too. Nearly four decades later, Guleng said, Munch argued in private letters that the student had made the wrong assumption that “The Scream” implied mental instability.
Addressing illness, death and anxiety in art was not a sign of illness, Munch said, but an indication of health. He embraced the idea of an “ingenious crazy artist” who could see parts of the world that others could not – a popular concept in late 19th century art.
Munch’s note that “The Scream” must have been painted by a “maniac” was an ironic comment that showed he did not comply with the rules of others, Guleng said.
“He also showed how vulnerable he was at doing this, how hurt he was and worried,” she said. “And in a way, he took over his own life. He took control of the situation. ”
The discovery of the inscription’s author is the second news production event for this version of “The Scream”, which was stolen from the National Gallery of Norway in 1994. The piece was recovered in a hotel three months later as a result of a scheme in which the police posed as another museum curators who sought to purchase the painting.
Solving the mystery with the hidden message marks another chapter in the artwork’s history. The resolution sheds new light on Munch’s personality, Guleng said, demonstrating the bond between him and his work.