Did you know that there is a message written on Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’?

Published March 2, 2021, 4:04 PM

by John Legaspi

Experts think they know the ‘madman’ who wrote it

Photo from the National Museum of Norway

Norweigian artist Edvard Munch’s 1893 artwork “The Scream” has been among the most recognizable modern masterpieces in the world. Depicting a melancholic image of a wailing ghost-like character and “a blood red” sky, the painting is seen by many as a symbolism of anxiety and mental health. 

But on the surface of the unnerving painting lies a dark mystery that has baffled art historians for years. On the top left-hand of the painting is a message written in pencil that reads, “Can only have been painted by a madman.”

The cryptic message has been a subject of discussion for over 117 years. Others think it was a bad review written by someone to vandalize the artwork. While some say it was the artist himself who etched the words. New discoveries by the curators at the National Museum of Norway state that the author of the message was, indeed, Munch. 

‘The Scream’

With the use of an infrared camera, the curators snapped photos of the painting and compared the inscription to Munch’s letters and notes. They found out that the message was written in the same style of the artist’s handwriting. 

“The writing is without a doubt Munch’s own,” Mai Britt Guleng, the museum’s curator, said in a story by CNN. “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 curators look back on the first presentation of the artwork in Oslo where it has been dismissed by critics. Upset by the cold reception toward his work, the curators believe that was the reason that pushed him to write it. 

“At a discussion night at the Students Association, where Munch is believed to have been present, the young medical student Johan Scharffenberg questioned Munch’s mental health claiming that his paintings proved he was not of sound mind,” Guleng said. “It is likely that Munch added the inscription in 1895, or shortly after in response to the judgment on his work.”

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 fjord and the city–my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety–and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.

Edvard Munch on describing ‘The Scream’

In another story by The Washington Post, Guleng remarked that he might have been in the influence of alcohol when he did it saying, “It might have been a moment of emotional distress. But he never mentioned it later.”

While evidence about him writing the message is quite few, there is some information that proves his deep hurt about the criticism as his family had a history of mental illness.

Edvard Munch

Munch once said, “Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder… My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art.”

Perhaps, if Munch really wrote the message, it was his ironic way of showing that he did not abide by anyone’s standards or rules. That putting anxieties in his work is not an indication of being ill, just as a sign of thinking about health. 

“He was also showing how vulnerable he was by doing this, how hurt he was, and worried,” Guleng said. “And in a way, he was taking possession of his own life. He was taking control of the situation.”

In modern pop culture, the fame of “The Scream” has influenced many multiple media, from the Ghostface mask seen in the thriller movie series “Scream” to being rendered into an emoji.