A mysterious inscription on Munch’s “Le Cri” reveals its secrets

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It is an icy cry, which takes to the guts, and one of the most iconic paintings in the world: that of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, produced in five versions between 1893 and 1917 and whose echoes still resonate a century later. . Because the work, whose ghostly character has been gleefully taken up and hijacked on the networks since the start of the pandemic, better than any other symbolizes the anguish experienced during this tormented period. And because The Scream has just delivered one of his last mysteries: that of a strange inscription, affixed discreetly in pencil over the painting and declaring, in Norwegian: “Could only be painted by a madman!”

Visible to the naked eye … but wise, because hidden in the glowing waves of the sky, this message appears only on the first and most famous version of the Shout. If its existence was already known at the beginning of the 20th century, specialists until now have agreed to see it as the work of a vandal. This week the Norwegian National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design proves the contrary with the help of infrared photography: it is the artist himself who scribbled this sanction. But why?

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Back in 1895, to set the context. After having filmed abroad for some time, the canvas, alongside other works by Edvard Munch including his Self-portrait with a cigarette, is presented to the Norwegian public for the first time. The reactions are mixed to say the least. A local museum director claims that “no one can consider Edvard Munch to have a normal brain” and, in a side-of-the-exhibition debate which the artist presumably attended, Johan Scharffenberg, a medical student, questions in front of everyone his mental state.

Strong hypothesis

Words that hurt the painter. “Not the criticism of his work, since as an avant-garde artist he provoked it,” explains Mai Britt Guleng, curator at the Norwegian National Museum and specialist in Munch. He also liked the romantic idea of ​​the mad visionary genius. But much less that of madness in the clinical sense of the term. ” Indeed, cases punctuate the history of the Munch family (starting with his sister, interned in a mental asylum), and the idea of ​​a hereditary disease terrorizes Edvard Munch – to the point that he will never have one. children.

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The hypothesis of a detractor who came discreetly to denounce the artist’s neuroses on his canvas, during the 1895 exhibition, therefore held up – so that no one came to question it. “Which in itself is fascinating,” says Mai Britt Guleng. Studies have focused on other aspects of the painting, such as its importance in Munch’s career or the connections that exist with his later poems. This lack of interest can more simply be explained by the size of the listing. ” Strangely discreet depredation …

Stopped due to the covid, but above all due to an upcoming move, the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design of Norway was able to take the time this winter to put the enigma under the microscope. Or rather, infrared photography, allowing the carbon of the pencil to stand out more clearly. Before comparing the writing to that of the artist.

Take back control

The similarities, especially in the formation of the “m”, leave no doubt to the experts: it is indeed the hand of Munch which traced these letters. Never seen before, says Mai Britt Guleng, and a new window on the complex character of Edvard Munch. “We see that he liked to provoke, that he did not care about the rules on the way of painting but also of treating a painting, notes the curator. This underlines his rebellious side, but also his vulnerability. These words sound like a way for him to regain control. ”

Is it for their symbolism, known only to him, that the artist will never cover them up, although he then retouched his Shout? “Or maybe he didn’t think about it, or he had drunk and just forgot about it…” Edvard Munch will never forget the episode of the medical student in any case, which he will evoke in his Memoirs thirty years later. Dotting the i’s, recalls Mai Britt Guleng, saying “people like him don’t get it: painting sickness, death, anguish has nothing to do with suffering yourself. madness. On the contrary, it is characteristic of a work of art. ”