Painted by a madman, beloved by thieves: Munch’s ‘The Scream’ still captivates

Conservationists studying Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) at the National Museum of Norway have established that its tiny inscription that reads ‘Can only have been painted by a madman’ was written by the artist himself.

There has long been a debate as to whether the damning note was graffiti or an integral part of the original work. Using new technology, curators put the handwriting under precise analysis, comparing it with letters and diaries known to have been authored by the artist.

Tests being carried out on Munch’s The Scream. Courtesy National Museum of Norway

It is a bit of detective work that might have appealed to DCI Charley Hill, the British police inspector who tracked down the painting after it was stolen from the museum in 1994. Hill, whose death was announced yesterday, headed Scotland Yard’s Art Squad at the time.

Anthony Amore, director of security and chief investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum confirmed the news of Hill’s passing. Amore and Hill were working together to recover 13 artworks – including three Rembrandts, five by Degas, a Manet and a Vermeer – that were stolen 30 years ago from the Boston institution.

The Scream was stolen by two men who simply put a ladder up against an upper-storey window of the museum one night and smashed the glass to gain entry. The robbers left a note reading ‘Thanks for the poor security’. Hill recalled to Country Life that, like many of his investigations, getting the painting back entailed some subterfuge.

‘I posed as a representative of the Getty Museum, wanting to buy the painting. The Getty was wonderful in creating an identity for me. There was a lot of tough talk and near misses, but the thieves including the Scandinavian kick-boxing champion fell for it. We settled on £400,000 in kroner, although we’d been prepared to pay up to $5 million.’

The painting held at the National Museum is one of four versions of Munch’s iconic composition, two in oils and two in pastels. The other painting, made in 1910 and held by the Munch Museum in Oslo, has also been stolen. It was taken by thieves in broad daylight in 2004, however the work was also recovered, in 2006.

One of the 1895 pastels sold in 2012 at auction for $119.9 million.

Munch, who suffered depression, anxiety and drank excessively, described the genesis for his painting as coming from an evening stroll. ‘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.’

The painting will move to Norway’s new National Museum, which when it opens in 2022 will combine the collections of the National Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Norwegian Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. Security will no doubt be tighter too.

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