One Scream, twice stolen: The artist behind the painting has his own chilling story
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 29 November 2005)

Two weeks ago, the FBI art-crimes unit announced a 10 Most Wanted list of stolen and unrecovered cultural objects. Alongside works like the Leonardo lifted from a castle in Scotland and a Cezanne taken from Oxford University, they named one of the most familiar images in art history, The Scream, by Edvard Munch -- the version stolen last year from the Munch Museum in Oslo.

In Norway, it was the crime of the year, and the cop trying to solve it has become a star of Norwegian TV news. While the museum was open, two masked men ran in, watched by horrified tourists. One pointed a gun at a female guard and the other ripped The Scream and a second Munch painting, a Madonna, from their frames. They dashed to a car with the art, which hasn't been seen since.

Last August, inspired by that heist, less astute crooks broke into an Oslo hotel and stole what they thought were Munch paintings. They didn't know that the hotel, alarmed by the museum hold-up, had replaced its originals with reproductions.

The 2004 robbery was the second in the history of The Scream. Ten years earlier, thieves broke into the National Gallery, grabbed the other painted version of the same subject, and left behind a note containing a sarcastic critique of the security system. Detectives recovered the picture four months later by claiming they wanted to buy it for the Getty Museum.

That made The Scream even more famous. Now it stars in the Norwegian National Gallery like the Mona Lisa (which also was once stolen) in the Louvre. Tourists by the busload head straight for it. Meanwhile, the Munch Museum continues to yearn for its lost Scream. It has thousands of other Munch items, but there's only one Scream -- or, rather, two, or three or maybe 100.

As much as the world loves The Scream, Munch loved it more. In a wonderfully informative if often awkward biography, Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream (Yale University Press), published last month, Sue Prideaux writes about the variations of that image that he worked on. No one knows exactly how often he paraphrased it. Certainly there are two paintings, two pastels and many prints. And whatever Munch didn't do with his vision, others have since done. Cartoonists and advertising illustrators by the thousands have borrowed it, and in 1961, it ran on Time magazine's cover, announcing a story on anxiety (or maybe it was alienation or guilt -- one of those three).

I've never been either chilled or impressed by The Scream, in any version. It seems to me a little, well, loud; for sure it's thunderingly obvious. I much prefer the intensely ambivalent female nudes; they signal that Munch didn't know whether he liked or despised his model.

But something about The Scream (maybe that pathetic mouth, twisted into a vertical oval) makes it remembered everywhere. People often say it expresses the spirit of our times -- a remarkable notion when you consider that it was first painted in 1893.

Munch often described his inspiration. He was on a path that overlooked Oslo from a spot that's now marked with a plaque. He could see the place where a friend committed suicide, and hear both the bellowing from a slaughterhouse and (he thought) screams coming from a mental hospital where his sister was a patient. "The sun was setting," he recalled. "Suddenly the sky turned blood red ... and I stood there trembling with anxiety -- and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature."

He was an unhappy child who grew into an unhappier adult. His father, a sin-haunted Christian, was a military doctor who had stumbled into the wrong profession; the sight of blood terrified him. He was stern, violent, and rather lacking in parental insight. (He read his children Dostoevsky.)

Edvard once discussed with his father what punishment a sinner might expect in hell. As he wrote in his diary when he was 15, "I maintained that no sinner could be so guilty that God would let him suffer longer than a thousand years. Father said that they would suffer for a thousand times a thousand years." This developed into a long, fierce argument.

For Edvard, tragedy piled on tragedy. Tuberculosis killed his mother when he was five, and his favourite sister nine years later. Another sister went insane. "Why was there a curse on my cradle?" Munch wrote.

In his career he had all the usual failures, then some major successes. These meant he could afford a complicated private life, much travel around Europe, many mistresses and great quantities of absinthe, the legendary artist-killer.

He needed and pursued women, then pushed them away. That habit was behind a violent encounter in 1902 that sounds like something from Van Gogh's life. Tulla Larsen, an Oslo heiress whom he loved and then dropped, stalked him for a long time and threatened suicide. He went to see her, there was a gun in the room (the record doesn't explain why), it went off and his left hand was permanently crippled.

Six years later he collapsed in an alcohol-induced psychosis and checked into a Copenhagen clinic. He had mild electroshock therapy and improved. Soon he was back on a farm near Oslo, where he worked steadily until his death in 1944, leaving Oslo thousands of paintings, drawings and prints.

His last years were plagued by the Nazi invaders of Nor- way. In 1933, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief, had called him a Nordic genius, "the greatest painter of the Germanic world," but other Nazi authorities classed him among decadent artists, like Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso. They seized his paintings from museums and included him in the famous 1937 exhibition of allegedly degenerate art.

After Germany invaded Norway in 1940 and set up a fascist government under Vidkun Quisling (whose last name quickly became a synonym for "traitor"), Munch expected his paintings to be seized. Instead, the Norwegian fascists tried unsuccessfully to make him one of their own by putting him on a national arts commission. He resisted, but after he died, at age 80, they managed to take over his funeral and send his body to the crematorium in a swastika-decorated coffin, a bizarre instance of posthumous celebrity hijacking. Since then many others have used Munch and The Scream for their own purposes, but usually with more benign intentions.

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