Art mystery solved: Who wrote on Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'?

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Art mystery solved: Who wrote on Edvard Munch's 'The Scream'?
A photo provided by The National Museum of Norway, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Munch’s painting from 1893, is one of the world’s most famous pieces, but for years art historians have mostly ignored a tiny inscription, written in pencil, at the upper left corner of its frame, reading: “Could only have been painted by a madman.” The National Museum of Norway via The New York Times.

by Nina Siegal

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” from 1893, is one of the world’s most famous paintings, but for years art historians have mostly ignored a tiny inscription, written in pencil, at the upper left corner of its frame, reading: “Could only have been painted by a madman.”

Who wrote the sentence there? Some thought a disgruntled viewer might have vandalized the work; others imagined it was the artist himself. But then why?

Curators at Norway’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, which owns the artwork, announced Monday in Oslo that they have determined that the text was indeed written by the artist.

“It’s been examined now very carefully, letter by letter, and word by word, and it’s identical in every way to Munch’s handwriting,” said Mai Britt Guleng, the museum’s curator of old masters and modern paintings, who was in charge of the research. “So there is no more doubt.”

Munch painted four versions of “The Scream” from 1893 to 1910. The first version, painted in tempera on panel with pastels, is the one owned by the National Museum, and is the only one that bears this inscription.

Researchers used infrared photography to make the text more legible. “He didn’t write it in big letters for everyone to see,” she said. “You really have to look hard to see it. Had it been an act of vandalism, it would have been larger.”

Munch probably wrote the sentence on his painting in 1895, according to Guleng, after his exhibition of new work at the Blomqvist gallery in Oslo. During a debate about the exhibition at the University of Oslo’s Students Association one night, a medical student, Johan Scharffenberg, said the artwork gave him reason to question the artist’s mental state, calling Munch abnormal and a “madman.”

Guleng believes the inscription is written with irony and reflects both pain at being attacked and fear of being regarded as mentally ill. “By writing this inscription in the clouds, he took possession, in a way, or he took control of how he was to be perceived and understood,” she said.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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February 23, 2021

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