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Mystery of Inscription on 'The Scream' Is Solved

Art historians says Edvard Munch wrote the 'madman' line himself
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 22, 2021 8:35 AM CST
Updated Feb 27, 2021 7:00 AM CST

(Newser) – Art historians in Norway say they've cracked the mystery about who scrawled a small inscription on Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream." And the culprit was Munch himself, according to their new analysis, reports the BBC. The penciled words in the upper left corner of the painting, so small they are difficult to see with the naked eye, read, "Could only have been painted by a madman," per the New York Times. For a long time time, the leading theory was that a disgruntled vandal jotted the words. But in their new study, curators at Norway's National Museum of Art used infrared technology to make the inscription easier to see, then went over it letter by letter and found a match with Munch's own handwriting. "It's identical in every way," says the museum's Mai Britt Guleng. “So there is no more doubt.”

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But why? Guleng says Munch probably wrote the inscription in 1895 after someone publicly called the artist a "madman" during a debate over the painting at an exhibition. "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," says Guleng. The "madman" criticism is believed to have rattled Munch, who wrote in his diary of suffering from a lifelong "feeling of anxiety," per the BBC. “By writing this inscription in the clouds, he took possession, in a way, or he took control of how he was to be perceived and understood,” says Guleng. Munch produced four versions of the painting, but only the first, from 1893, has the inscription, notes the Times. (Maybe the figure in the painting isn't actually screaming?)

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