In 1895, Edvard Munch attended a meeting in Munich in which his painting was being discussed. A medical student, with a certainty in his erudition that only the young have, said that “The Scream” could only have been painted by someone who was mentally disturbed. Since that time, the painting has become iconic — the ghostly figure on a bridge, screaming into the void of the future is seen across media, including in memes and emojis, as an expression of fear and angst. One of the aspects of the painting, long thought to be the work of a vandal, has recently been confirmed by experts as being a note by the artist himself: “Can only have been painted by a madman,” Munch wrote, in pencil and in small type, in the corner of his work.
Munch, by all accounts, feared for his sanity. His family had a history of mental illness and he suffered a breakdown in 1908. Among the many events that apparently exacerbated his anxiety was the medical student’s comment about his most celebrated work. The graffiti in the painting may be a part of his art. It is, at one end, an ironic jibe at his detractors and society and at the other, an acknowledgement of his suffering, taking ownership of it.
The series of “Scream” paintings are from a time when the anxieties of a destructive modernity had not yet found articulation. Munch’s work is part of the expression of that despair, and like Van Gogh (whose work had a formative influence on a young Edvard), has endured. Now, as so many use the image he created as passing punctuation on an instant message, it is easy to forget — or even to glorify — the suffering behind the desperate face. For all its wit and irony, there is a deep melancholy in a painting “that could only have been painted by a madman”.