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Art of a Madman: Hidden Message in "The Scream" Authenticated

Camera Shot © Annar Bjorgli/The National Museum

In 1904, a Danish art critic found a message hidden within the blood red clouds of Edvard Munch's well-known expressionist piece "The Scream”. Faintly handwritten in pencil, in the top left corner reads, "Can only have been painted by a mad man!" The inscription's origin baffled curators, and many assumed it was damaged by spectators meant to insult the distressed artist. After extensive conservation work in preparation for its showcase next year in Olso, a new analysis by Norway's National Museum revealed Munch himself wrote the words. Using infrared technology, the handwriting of the mysterious message was compared to Munch's diaries and letters. According to Mai Britt Guleng, the museum’s curator of old masters and modern paintings, who oversaw the research, “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.”

Close up © Borre Hostland/ The National Museum

Enhanced © Borre Hostland/The National Museum

Viewer's critiques of the work were harsh because misery echoed off the canvas, and many speculated it spoke of the painter's mental anguish. He likely wrote the phrase sometime in 1895 or shortly thereafter, in response to a disparaging remark received after exhibiting "The Scream" for the first time in his native town of Kristiania. During a discussion at the Student Association, a young medical student named Johan Scharffenberg claimed this artwork demonstrated the artist was not of sound mind. Munch was disheartened by this declaration and revisited it several times in private letters and diaries.

Munch’s artistic works were meant to capture the tough realities of mental illness, loss and grief. He wrote, "Disease, insanity, and death were the angels that attended my cradle, and since then have followed me throughout my life." His mother died of tuberculosis when he was five years old, and his father and sister suffered from episodes of depression later diagnosed as Schizophrenia. He suffered from his own demons in the form of anxiety, depression, and alcoholism. He went on to say his goal was to capture the soul in his work and really reach deep and capture himself. Expressionism is an art of inner emotions of self rather than outer realities.

" One evening, I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed the scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became " The Scream (Diaries of Edvard Munch, Nice, 1892).

The experience on the bridge, either a hallucination or a manifestation of bursting emotion, was transformed over eighteen months into an autobiographical piece that has passed the test of time. Madman or not, a healthy creative process was needed to create this masterpiece. So purely ironic or retribution for the attack on his mental health, Munch took control of his narrative.

The Scream, 1893, Oil, Tempera, and Pastel on Cardboard © Borre Hostland/The National Museum

It is no surprise that this painting has become arguably one of the most regarded pieces of artwork and the pastel version holds the record for the highest auction sale priced at $120 million sold at Sotheby on May 2, 2012. Art should speak to the human condition because relatability connects the artist and the viewer. The anxiety felt in Edvard Munch's "The Scream" is palpable and therefore universal. Everyone has felt anxiety, depression, isolation, or abandonment at some time in their lives. The thing about these particular feelings is they demand to be felt, leaving the individual screaming inside.


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