“It could only have been painted by a madman!” This sentence written in pencil and that appears in the upper left corner of ‘The Scream’, the iconic painting by Edvard Munch (1863-1944), is an irony of the Norwegian painter about his emotional instability.
The existence of the inscription had been known for more than a century, barely perceptible to the naked eye but perfectly legible under infrared light. Even for years there was speculation about the origin of the writing whose authorship is now attributed to the painter himself, who with it ironic about the imbalance and anguish that marked his life and work.
“The Scream” was painted in 1893 and the emotional health of its author was questioned by many, including Johan Scharffenberg, a medical student who publicly questioned Munch’s sanity. “We believe that Munch himself wrote the phrase on the painting after hearing Scharffenberg’s judgment on it, in 1895 or shortly thereafter,” says Mai Britt Guleng, curator of the National Gallery of Norway who guards the first of the four copies in Oslo. that Munch made of the painting.
The veiled and enigmatic phrase was first quoted at an exhibition in Copenhagen in 1904. A Danish critic attributed its writing to an outraged viewer, something now contested by experts. “Munch had a complex personality and the reason why he would write that sentence in the box is just as complex. I wanted to provoke, but I also wanted to be respected, ”says Guleng. He believes that the tormented and alcoholic painter could write it “in a moment of depression or drunkenness.”
“It can be read as an ironic comment or as an expression of the artist’s vulnerability,” says the expert, for whom “there is no doubt that the writing is by Munch”. “The calligraphy itself and the events that happened in 1895, when Munch first exhibited his painting in Norway, point in the same direction,” he notes.
The closure of the Norwegian art gallery until 2022 has made it possible to carry out calligraphic studies and compare the autograph of the painting with the handwriting of the letters and diaries of Munch, who came to make up to four versions of ‘The Scream’. The original version is in the National Gallery of Norway, two others in the Munch Museum in Oslo, and the last one was acquired in 2012 by Leon Black at an auction for almost 100 million euros.
The Scream, which will be the star of the new museum opening next year in Oslo, was first exhibited two years after Munch painted it. The critic Henrik Grosch then wrote that Munch could not be considered “a serious man with a normal brain.” The Student Society of Kristiania – as the city of Oslo was called then – held a debate on Munch’s art. Some attendees, such as the poet Sigbjorn Obstfelder, defended his work, while Johan Scharffenberg questioned the judgment of Munch, who was able to witness a debate that he remembered all his life and whose accusations he would defend in his writings.
“Sickness, madness and death were the black angels who watched over my cradle”, wrote Edvard Munch, who at the age of 5 lost his mother, at 15 he saw his sister Sophie die and who would lose his father and grandmother very early maternal, his paternal grandfather and an aunt. His sister Laura suffered from schizophrenia and he himself was admitted for eight months in a psychiatric hospital in Denmark when he was 48 years old. «Since I can remember I have suffered a deep feeling of anxiety that I have tried to express in my art. Without this anxiety, it would have been like a ship without a rudder ”, wrote the Norwegian painter, who would make ‘The Scream’ a universal symbol of anxiety, anguish and existential malaise.