It is an image that has intrigued the art world for more than a century and become synonymous with existential angst, and recently inspired its own emoji, but now some graffiti has added a new layer to the story of Edvard Munch’s most iconic painting, The Scream.
A tiny pencil inscription in the top left corner of one of the four versions of the painting, which reads, “Can only have been painted by a madman”, has been the subject of debate over who wrote it – it was originally thought to be by Munch, but was later attributed to a vandal – but new analysis by experts at the National Museum of Norway suggests it is indeed in the hand of the artist.
Mai Britt Guleng, a Munch specialist and curator at the museum, began investigating the inscription, first discovered in 1904, and after consulting with colleagues deduced it was the work of the master.
Guleng believes the comment reveals the state of mind of Munch, who is thought to have made the marking in 1895 after attending a meeting in which a medical student said the painting must be the work of someone who was mentally disturbed.
“It’s a combination of being ironic, but also showing his vulnerability,” said Guleng. “He is actually taking this very seriously and he is hurt because there is a history of illness in his family, and he was very anxious, but he showed himself be marked by it.”
Munch returned to the 1895 incident repeatedly in letters, said Guleng, who added that the artist was obsessed with disease after seeing his sister die as a child from tuberculosis, and his mother succumb to the same illness.
Guleng believes that background might have led him to make the markings on the painting in order to address criticisms of the work and his own inner demons.
She said: “It was very important for him to take control of his own self-understanding and also how others understood him. This was maybe an act of taking control because others had said that he was mad, but saying, ‘I can make a joke about that.’”
The inscription has mostly been ignored compared with other elements of the painting and was widely thought to have been done by Munch until a 2008 catalogue by the Norwegian art historian Gerd Woll suggested the artist was not responsible for it.
Guleng was helped by a team including the conservator Thierry Ford, research librarian Laffe Jacobson, and editor Hilde Bøe, who used infrared technology to analyse the handwriting and compare it with Munch’s letters.
The painting will go on display in the National Museum’s new building, due to open in Oslo in 2022, where it will sit alongside other Munch paintings including Madonna, The Dance of Life and Self-Portrait with Cigarette in a new room dedicated to the artist.
In 2019 the Munch Museum in Oslo partnered with the British Museum in London for the exhibition Edvard Munch: Love and Angst, which showed 83 artworks in all.
It included a black-and-white lithograph of The Scream, and the exhibition curator, Giulia Bartrum, said at the time that Munch was “deeply, deeply aware of mental instability, mental illness, a huge subject at the time, and that’s what he was trying to portray. Anything which tries to express the inner workings of the mind … has huge resonance today.”
Guleng believes the markings also show Munch was always willing to experiment with his work and in particular with the surfaces of his paintings.
“I think it tells us a lot about experimental attitude to making works of art, because he could have said he didn’t want to harm it, but all his life he wanted to experiment with the surface,” she said.