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Experts confirm Edvard Munch wrote secret message on The Scream

22 February 2021

The Scream is now the most celebrated depiction of angst in the world, but when Edvard Munch first exhibited it in Kristiania in 1895 it had many detractors. Among them was a young medical student, who declared in the artist’s presence that the painting revealed him not to be in sound mind.

It has long been known that the young artist was deeply sensitive to such criticism. But a team of curators, conservationists and archivists at the National Museum of Norway have now proved how greatly Munch took it to heart. Using infrared technology, and through comparison with Munch’s letters, they have confirmed that an inscription, added in pencil at the top-left of the painting after it was completed, is in Munch’s own handwriting. ‘Can only be the work of a madman,’ it reads.

The inscription was first noticed in 1904, but until now it has not been known whether it was the work of Munch or the graffiti of an outraged viewer. For Mai Britt Guleng, the curator at the museum who began investigating the inscription, the new attribution reveals Munch’s ‘complex personality’. ‘He might have believed in the romantic notion of the connection between creativity and madness,’ Guleng says. ‘But he did not want to be perceived as mentally ill.’ Guleng suggests that the ‘ironic comment’ was a means of Munch ‘taking back control’ in the face of speculation over his mental health.

The analysis was undertaken during conservation of the painting, ahead of its installation in the new National Museum in Oslo, due to open next year; The Scream will be displayed alongside several other key works, including Madonna and The Dance of Life, in a room dedicated to Munch.