Hurt by Public Response to “The Scream,” Munch Inscribed Hidden “Madman” Message

An infrared scan of an inscription written in pencil in the top left-hand corner revealed the handwriting to be the artist’s own. (photos by Borre Hostland; courtesy the National Museum)

A text scribbled in pencil on Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” (1893), which reads the work “can only have been painted by a madman,” is by the artist’s hand, new findings reveal. Curators at the National Museum of Norway made the surprising revelation while restoring and researching the painting ahead of a 2022 exhibition.

“The writing is without a doubt Munch’s own,” said museum curator Mai Britt Guleng. “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.”

The inscription was likely added two years after the work was completed, when “The Scream” was shown for the first time in Munch’s native Kristiania (present-day Oslo). The painting prompted public indignation at what was deemed the work’s disturbing imagery — a figure in a twisted grimace that has become a universal symbol of human angst — and questions about the artist’s mental state.

Munch, who was deeply hurt by the response and wrote about it extensively in his diaries, is thought to have added the “madman” line as a bitter rejoinder. (Both Munch’s father and sister suffered from depression, and the Norwegian painter was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown in 1908.)

The enigmatic sentence had long puzzled scholars of Munch’s work, some of whom speculated it was an act of vandalism — ironically, they thought it might have been written by one of the many outraged critics of the painting that spurred Munch to pen the line himself.

The museum made the surprising discovery during an infrared analysis of the work. (photo by Annar Bjorgli; courtesy the National Museum)

This historical context, combined with infrared scans of the top left corner of the canvas and comparisons with other texts by Munch, led the museum to determine that the graphite inscription was the artist’s own. The findings complicate and deepen our understanding of the artist’s life and the initial, troubled reception of a work that later became iconic.

“New research adds greatly to our experience of artworks,” says Karin Hindsbo, director of the National Museum. “We will never be finished with Munch’s art. Every time we ask a question about his works, new answers and perspectives comes up.”

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