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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 4 March 2021

'The Scream': Experts confirm secret message in Edvard Munch's painting was written by the artist

Using infrared technology and handwriting analysis, curators say Munch wrote the line as a response to critics

New analysis by experts at the National Museum in Oslo concluded that a pencil inscription in a corner of Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' was penned by the artist himself. EPA 
New analysis by experts at the National Museum in Oslo concluded that a pencil inscription in a corner of Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' was penned by the artist himself. EPA 

“Could only have been painted by a madman” – the words are scrawled in pencil on the upper left corner of The Scream, Edvard Munch’s masterpiece of a gaunt figure screaming in anguish against the backdrop of a red and orange sky.

For decades, art historians have debated who wrote it. The scrawl was initially seen as an act of vandalism when it was noticed by a Danish critic in 1904. This week, curators at Norway’s National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design have confirmed that it was written by the Norwegian artist himself.

Experts came to the conclusion with the help of infrared scans and handwriting analysis, examining the artist’s letters and diaries as reference. The painting had also been undergoing research and conservation as it is being prepared for a 2022 exhibition at the museum in Oslo.

A close-up view of an infrared scan of the painting 'The Scream,' 1893, by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. New analysis by experts at the National Museum in Oslo concluded that a pencil inscription in a corner of the painting was penned by the artist himself. EPA / Borre Hostland / National Museum of Norway
A close-up view of an infrared scan of the painting 'The Scream,' 1893, by Munch. EPA

“The writing is without a doubt Munch’s own,” Mai Britt Guleng, curator at the National Museum, said on Monday. “The handwriting itself, as well as events that happened in 1895, when Munch showed the painting in Norway for the first time, all point in the same direction,” she said.

She stated that the artist may have written the line as a response to the criticism he received for his art, which was seen as provocative at the time. “He was accused of being mad,” Guleng told the BBC.

In one instance, a young medical student proclaimed that Munch’s work was proof that the artist was not mentally sound. The incident had a profound impact on Munch, who wrote about it repeatedly in his letters and diary entries.

At the same time, Munch was also acutely aware of the mental illness that ran in his family, something he feared he inherited. Guleng said the artist’s hidden message “shows his vulnerability”. The artist was hospitalised after a nervous breakdown in 1908.

epa09029363 An undated handout photo made available by The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design of Norway on 22 February 2021 shows the painting 'The Scream,' 1893, by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. New analysis by experts at the National Museum in Oslo concluded that a pencil inscription in a corner of the painting was penned by the artist himself. The origin of the graffiti, which reads 'Can only have been painted by a madman,' had been the subject of debate. The masterpiece will go on display in the National Museum’s new building that is due to open in 2022. EPA/Borre Hostland / National Museum of Norway / HANDOUT MANDATORY CREDIT: Borre Hostland / National Museum of Norway HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
'The Scream' by Edvard Munch. EPA

Munch created four versions of The Scream, two in pastel and the other two in paint, plus a lithograph stone for prints.

In a diary entry, the artist recalled how the painting came to be: “I sensed a scream passing through nature … I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The colour shrieked. This became The Scream.”

The National Museum, where the work, along with other pieces by Munch, are located, is currently under construction in Oslo. It will reopen in 2022.

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Updated: February 23, 2021 02:15 PM

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