The Inscription in "The Scream" Explained
From Home Alone to the infamous 1996 Scream movie, Edvard Munch‘s 1893 painting The Scream has had a hugely influential impact on popular culture. Today, it remains one of the most recognizable pieces of modern art. However, look beyond the gaunt, haunting face of the painting’s subject, and you are presented with an even darker piece of art history. “Could only have been painted by a madman!”. The chilling inscription, found at the top left corner of the painting under certain lighting, has baffled art historians for over a century. What does it mean? When was it written? Who could have vandalized the work? Come with Artsper as we unpack the history of The Scream, and solve the haunting mystery of its inscription.
Munch: A troubled man
Born in 1863, Norwegian artist Edvard Munch is one of the most influential artists of the late 19th and early 20th century. A troubled man and a restless traveler, the non-conformist artist used art as a means of escaping the deeply conservative, Lutherian society in which he was raised. By the time he had entered adulthood, Munch had already lost his mother, brother and two sisters to disease and mental illness. As a result, his art contains an immense sense of darkness and sadness. It portrays the emotions of a man trapped within a restrictive society, crippled by depression. His work, like that of fellow artist Gustav Klimt, straddled both the Symbolist and the Expressionist movements. Munch continues to inspire generations of artists and art enthusiasts around the world.
An analysis of the painting
Munch is best known for his Scream series; 3 oil paintings, a pastel and a lithograph. Created between 1893 and 1917, they make up a part of a larger series entitled the Frieze of Life. The series could be considered a metonym of modern life, plagued by anxiety and uncertainty, helpless in a hostile environment. The inspiration behind the work can be found in an excerpt from Munch’s diary in 1892, in which he wrote:
“I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjörd and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
This extract describes the setting of the painting. The two figures in the background could be Munch’s friends, and the haunting face perhaps belonging to Munch himself, “ trembling with anxiety”. It also, contrary to popular belief, suggests that the scream is not coming from the figure, but rather from nature. The expression on the figure’s face is a reaction to the scream, instead of the scream itself. There is a definite ambiguity to the painting which allows it to relate to many people and many states of mental distress.
A controversial reception
It is no surprise that such a provocative painting caused uproar amongst the artistic community. It was first exhibited at the Blomqvist Gallery in Oslo in 1895. However, spectators criticized both the style and the subject of the work. It broke away from the Realist style, instead taking inspiration from the likes of Paul Gauguin and Edouard Manet. It is relatively simple in execution with its bold lines and bright colors, typical of (proto-)Expressionism. However, it was the painting’s subject that caused the most uproar. In an era where mental health was such a taboo, displaying it in such an audacious manner was seen as scandalous. Many criticized Munch’s sanity, with one medical student even suggesting that the artist was crazy.
The inscription in The Scream
There is one mystery that has baffled art historians for over a century. In the top right hand corner of the original 1893 painting, nestled amongst the rolling red clouds, lies a subtle line of graffiti which reads, “Can only have been painted by a madman”. It was first discovered in 1904 by a Danish art critic, and since then onlookers have been scratching their heads trying to wonder who would deface a painting in such a way, and what was the reason behind it?
Who could have done it?
It was universally concluded that the graffiti was a work of vandalism. It was likely done by some disgruntled observer, unhappy with what Munch was displaying. Following the poor reception of the painting in 1895, it wasn’t improbable that someone might take it upon themselves to deface the work. It was ruled out that the graffiti had been done by Munch. Typography isn’t uncommon in works of art, but why would an artist “ruin” their own masterpiece?
A shocking discovery…
In 2021, however, the century-long mystery was solved ahead of an exhibition at the National Museum of Norway. Art researchers at the university of Norway discovered the culprit as they were preparing the work. Using infrared technology, they realized the inscription had not been done by an unhappy spectator or a judgmental student. It had been done by Munch himself! Art historians believe Munch to have written it following the negative reception of the work. He was a troubled man and a complicated soul. It is thought that during a moment of melancholy he wrote the tragically sardonic inscription on his own painting.
A haunting legacy
The inscription in the scream only adds to its intrigue, as it continues to inspire, and to scare! From Home Alone, The Scream movie franchise, or even its very own emoji, the painting has secured itself firmly amongst the masterpieces of modern art. Today, the work is considered not only stylistically trailblazing, as a Proto-Expressionist piece and movement away from Realism, but also as a striking and brave representation of mental health in art. Munch, using the medium of art, quite candidly expresses a sense of anguish and terror which plagues the human condition.
Has the haunting story of Munch’s The Scream whet your appetite for something chilling? Check out our Halloween collection for a curated selection of Artsper’s most terrifying works.
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