With its distorted shapes and unearthly expression, The Scream is one of the most haunting paintings ever made. And its mystery has continued to grow ever since a scrawled message was found hiding away in a corner of the masterpiece. Experts have now examined this in more detail – and it seems that it’s not just the painting’s central character who was crying for help.
It’s an image as evocative as has ever been put to canvas. Below a blood red sky stands a figure, its droopy body shape almost alien-like. And within earshot of some passers-by, it clasps its hands to its ears. A look of utter horror spreads over the figure’s face in what appears to be an emerging hellscape.
To look at The Scream for one second is like looking into the eyes of a madman. And for years Edvard Munch’s expressionist painting has come to represent suffering in the modern age. As explained by Smithsonian Magazine in 2006, the artist and painting “defined how we see our own age – wracked with anxiety and uncertainty.”
The Scream arrived in an era when popular thought turned inwards to the mind. Because around this time, radicals like Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzche were exploring our subjective experiences. And reflecting their pioneering work, The Scream evoked a mind engulfed by chaos, turmoil and apprehension.
It was exactly this sense of dread that Munch wanted to capture when painting the first version of The Scream in 1893. As the artist recounted in his diary the previous year, the inspiration came during a walk around Oslo with two friends. He was suddenly overcome by sickness. And upon stopping to rest, he felt the world turn in a way beyond his explanation.
Looking out over a nearby fjord, Munch was struck by an unreal sensation. “The sun was setting, and the clouds turned a blood red,” the painter wrote in his diary. “I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.”
For Munch, The Scream’s image of mental torture represented more than just a passing interest in the terrifying. Because from as early as childhood the painter’s life was plagued by turmoil. Just five years after his birth, Munch’s mother died of consumption. He would lose his brother and sister in a similar fashion, with the latter’s death influencing his early work The Sick Child.
But another sickness arguably had an even greater influence on Munch’s work. Alongside the trauma of these losses, the artist wrote of another “black [angel] that stood at my cradle.” This dark angel was mental illness, and it didn’t affect him alone. His younger sister Laura, for example, spent the majority of her life confined to institutions.
Munch would check himself into an institution in 1908, and he remained under care for a year. But before that point, his willingness to translate his emotional state onto the canvas made him an artistic celebrity. Part of a collection called “the Frieze of Life,” The Scream transformed both Munch’s career and art itself.
Up until that point, painting had been focused on the pursuit of beauty and harmony. To use an example, artworks like Da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa were celebrated for evoking “a Renaissance ideal of serenity and self-control.” But The Scream made art out of humanity’s darkest and wildest impulses.
After The Scream, countless young artists followed in Munch’s footsteps. And painters in Germany began depicting their own fractured impressions of life in a movement that became known as Expressionism. Filmmakers, too, adopted this subjective style for silent films such as 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Today Munch’s influence extends beyond art and into pop culture. Just take the killers in 1996’s hit-film Scream, for example, who all wore masks styled after Munch’s painting. Plus you can even express your own angst in SMS with the “face screaming in fear” emoji which bears an uncanny resemblance, too.
But while it may remain an iconic figure of art, The Scream was not the only one of its kind. Throughout his life, Munch painted, drew and created various other works – as part of a productive streak. So much so that over 1000 unreleased paintings were discovered locked away in the artist’s home following his 1944 death.
The Scream too was an artwork that benefited from Munch’s energized style of work. After his first version of this most famous creation in 1893, the artist went on to recreate it three more times. These paintings – made over a 17-year period – remain in public display or private collections today.
Yet there is some disagreement about which of these famed paintings was the first of its kind. Some believe that the most recognizable version – painted in tempera on a cardboard base in 1893 – is the original. Others assert that a version etched in crayon from that year is really the premiere copy, owing to its rougher style.
Whichever was the first, both can be found in Munch’s hometown. The first hangs in the Oslo National Gallery, while the second is on display in the Munch Museum of Oslo. This latter institution also boasts another copy of the work painted again in tempera in 1910. Most likely, Munch created this replica as a quick way to make money.
Fitting for artworks loaded with so much dread and mystery, these copies of The Scream have suffered strange fates throughout their display. In a span of three decades, these pieces have been the target of not one, but two successful thefts. And their robberies allowed The Scream to once again leave dark ripples throughout the world.
The first theft occurred in 1994 when Munch’s first tempera piece was lifted from its resting place. By all accounts, the burglars had little difficulty in swiping the masterwork – it was merely carried away through a window. The robbers reportedly even left a note to the National Gallery thanking them for their poor security.
The second incident was even stranger than the first. In 2004 masked gunmen entered the Munch Museum and took the artist’s 1910 tempera piece as well as his 1894 study Madonna. Not the most skilled of burglars, one of the criminals somehow dropped one of the paintings during their not-so-daring escape.
In both cases, these copies were eventually returned to their rightful places. But the reason for their thefts is just as mysterious as the painting itself. With the latter robbery, experts remain convinced that the thieves didn’t have money on their minds. They apparently did it to draw the police’s attention away from a murder investigation.
Yet these thefts haven’t deterred museum staff from putting The Scream on display. And you can still see all three versions in the flesh – providing you can afford a ticket to Oslo. That being said, the final version remains a little harder to find to art-lovers and thieves alike.
Because ever since 1937, a much more colorful fourth copy of The Scream – painted in 1895 – has remained in private collections. In 2012 the version was sold for a staggering $120 million to financier Leon Black. Before being transferred again to private hands, however, it had a brief public showing at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York.
What makes this version so special isn’t its price tag or the colorful hue that Munch painted it with. Rather, it’s the extra piece of information the artist had bound up with the piece. Inscribed in the bottom of the painting’s frame, Munch left a poem that explained just how the artwork came to be.
In elegant prose, Munch revisited the events that built up to the ghastly image. He mentioned how “the sky turned a bloody red” and how it hung like “Blood and Tongues of fire.” Finally – “shivering with anxiety” – Munch was overcome with sensation and “felt the great Scream in Nature.”
Sadly this haunting poem is locked away from most observers due to the painting’s private ownership. But this isn’t the only piece that exhibits a perplexing piece of graffiti. As it happens, Munch’s original tempera painting has its own strange transcription. And it is perhaps the bluntest explanation of The Scream ever made.
In the top left corner of the painting is scribbled this cryptic message, “Can only have been painted by a mad man.” Despite being slightly visible, the graffiti wasn’t discovered until 1904 – more than a decade after the painting’s creation. And ever since, experts have been in wild disagreement over its origin.
Because to some, this inscription could have only been the work of a vandal shocked by Munch’s style. To others, it was actually Munch himself who penned the words in an instance of self-deprecation. Yet it would take experts over a century to figure out the culprit of this peculiar line.
Equipped with infrared devices and examples of Munch’s handwriting, staff at the National Museum of Norway began examining the message. And they came to a surprising conclusion about its author in 2021. “The writing is without a doubt Munch’s own,” announced curator Mai Britt Guleng in a statement to the press.
Yes, the person who defaced The Scream was none other than the artist himself. But why would Munch want to defile his own work in such a way? Was he unhappy with the finished product? Did he dislike what it made him see in himself? Or was he trying to warn future artists driven to take inspiration from his work?
Well, it seems that the message is likely the product of a sensitive artist lashing out at his fiercest critics. Because while The Scream may today be one of the greatest paintings ever made, it received a mixed reaction during its time. And its first exhibition in Oslo in 1895, in particular, provoked some brazen moaning.
Following this screening, Munch reportedly attended an open discussion where the audience could talk about the artwork at length. There, a medical student named Johan Scharffenberg slated The Scream’s frightening nature. And he even suggested that Munch was in all likelihood insane. Just imagine if that had happened to an artist today!
Offended by the claim, Munch apparently returned to his artwork where he added the graffiti. And with it, the artist struck a self-aware swipe at his own tortured persona as well as a blow to naysayers. So argued Guleng anyway, “It’s a combination of being ironic, but also showing his vulnerability.”
Munch may have been glib in his response to such criticism, but privately the painter’s feelings had been hurt. And in his journal he devoted countless pages to dissecting the remark in detail. “He is hurt because there is a history of mental illness in his family,” continued Guleng. By adding the inscription to The Scream, Munch ultimately, “showed himself marked by [the accusation].”
Yet despite Munch being clearly offended by Scharffenberg’s jibe, the artist himself would likely have agreed with it. Because in his mind Munch acknowledged a connection between his struggles with mental health and his artwork. So much so, even, that the artist once wrote, “Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder.”
As Munch once wrote in his diary: “My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.” So the painter may have been afflicted by mental health issues, but he saw them as an inescapable part of his talents. “My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness,” he said.
If The Scream merely hinted at Munch’s emotional wellbeing, then its follow-up put these issues front and center. Painted in 1894, the piece entitled Anxiety has much in common with its predecessor. Besides sharing the same themes of emotional instability, the two pieces even use the same location and perspective.
But it’s undeniable that there’s something different here on the canvas. Whereas The Scream showcased two figures in the background, Anxiety crowds a group of people into the foreground. And while they were indifferent in the previous painting, here all their attention is fixed on the viewer – their intrusive stares creating a feeling of being suffocated.
While The Scream tries to evoke the feelings of mental anguish in isolation, Anxiety paints these same sensations as a collective. It could also be read as a take on Munch’s own feelings with fame and recognition. Because the figures appear to be judging the viewer – much how people like Scharffenberg had judged Munch.
It seems like this level of intrusion was just too much for Munch. Following his 1908 stint in a sanatorium, the painter moved to the country where he lived the final 35 years of his life in seclusion. He never married nor had kids – instead he viewed his works of art as his children.
But as lonely as this life seems, we shouldn’t view Munch’s life as a tragedy. Today, those suffering from mental health issues feel more open to talking about them. And by putting his own anxieties on the canvas, when such things weren’t usually discussed, Munch arguably helped start a conversation. So perhaps millions have this “madman” – and his era – to thank for that.