Etched into the paint of one of the most famous paintings in the world, a haunting eight-word sentence has been a mystery to art historians for over a century. In 1904, a Danish art critic peering at Edvard Munch‘s The Scream noticed graffiti along the rolling clouds of the blood-red sunset. The sentence reads, “Can only have been painted by a madman.”
The mysterious statement—clearly added sometime after the painting's debut in 1893—was long thought to be added either by a disgruntled onlooker or perhaps the artist himself. The century-old debate has finally been settled by modern technology. Using infrared photography to compare handwriting to Munch's letters and journals, experts at the National Museum of Norway claim the words are in fact the artist's own. As part of Norwegian Expressionism, Munch painted several versions of The Scream.
The painting with the hidden message is an original made in 1893. According to the artist, the idea for the obsessive image came to him when he experienced hallucinations while walking at sunset. When the painting was first exhibited, the pain emanating from the central figure confused the public. It has been suggested that the work represents the artist's state of mind. For this reason, scientists have wondered if an anonymous hand cut out a message calling Munch "crazy."
The National Museum was closed for construction, but he decided to view Munch's paintings in infrared. The generated image will give you a clear idea of the words written on the picture. The experts then compared the handwriting to examples from known artists.
They came to the conclusion that the hands are the same. But why did Munch inscribe this phrase into his painting? It is known that Munch took criticism of his mental state very much to heart, as he had a family history of mental illness. According to a statement from the museum: “It is likely that Munch added the inscription in 1895, or shortly after in response to the judgment on his work.”
Munch was a tortured soul by his own admission, and would struggle with alcoholism and mental illness later in life. He once wrote, “Illness, insanity, and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life.” His most famous painting, The Scream, has inspired countless depictions of pain—including the famous Scream mask.
Thankfully, the later years of his life were ones of commercial success and sunnier-feeling paintings. Munch died in 1944, while Norway was under Nazi occupation. His works had previously been removed by the Nazis from German museums. So far, 11 pieces have not been found. In Norway, where the National Museum is set to reopen in 2022, there is more to see today.