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Screams

For more photos of rare and unknown works by Edvard Munch, please read my cross-post on Huffington Post World.

Down in the basement, leaning against the wall sat a brown package–the back of a picture frame: small and unremarkable like the “art” you find stacked in a garage sale.

I walked right past it–just one more painting among the stacks of frames leaning against the walls.

“Oh, I think this is it right here!” said Petra, retreating back to the package. With great care, the Curator of Paintings at the Munch Museum lifted the frame and with her colleague, rotated the painting around towards me, revealing one of the world’s most iconic pictures.

Skrik is the Norwegian word for “Scream” and that’s exactly the sound I wanted to make when I saw the original painting in the basement of the Munch Museum in Oslo: skrik!

Traveling the globe has brought me face to face with some wonderful art, but nothing compared to standing inches away from one of the most famous (and expensive) paintings on Earth. I recognized so much of it–the red and yellow-streaked sky, the ghostly green face, the rounded mouth sounding its existentialist howl–but this was no textbook illustration, no digital photo, or some art appreciation print. No, here was the actual Scream in all of its realness and I was almost breathless as I stared at every brushstroke behind the glass box that protected such a delicate and iconic work.

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The Scream, by Edvard Munch, at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

There are, in fact, four original versions of the Scream–all of them painted on cardboard:

1) Pastel, recently sold at Sotheby’s for a record $120 million, the highest price paid for a painting at auction.

2) Pastel, on display at the Munch Museum (stolen in 2004 and recovered in 2006).

3) Painting, on display at the National Gallery (stolen in 1994 and also recovered)

4) Painting, stored in the locked collection at the Munch Museum.

Visiting Oslo, I was able to see three of the four paintings, the last one in a basement that’s more secure than the Pentagon–and that’s not hyperbole. I’ve been deep inside the Pentagon before and the locked vaults of the Munch Museum feel much more secure. Such a famous and priceless painting has to protected.

In fact, aside from the Mona Lisa, I doubt there is any painting that is more famous or recognizable.

“Now it’s been used and misused in so many different settings that this meaning of the painting is kind of being washed away slowly, but it has become an icon,” explained Petra Pettersen. I was fortunate enough to spend the morning with the museum’s curator, exploring some of the obscure and unknown works of Norway’s most renowned artist.

“What’s the one thing you wish people knew about The Scream?” I asked.

“That it’s actually part of this series, The Frieze of Life–all about life in its different phases–hope, love, anger, and despair.”

One of the paintings leading up to The Scream is an almost-identical painting called Despair, where a despondent figure stands on the same bridge as The Scream, under the same flaming sky as The Scream, but instead of screaming, he broods. The painting is on display in the museum upstairs, and I loved seeing how each individual piece connected to another.

“Munch developed his ideas over long periods of time,” explained Petra. “There were many, many works over many years that led up to The Scream. Munch wanted to go deeper and deeper into the psychological state and research the human condition.”

Munch also kept a meticulous diary so that we know more about his life and work than some of the other artists of the time. Both his thoughts and paintings reflect a search for understanding life and expressing it accurately.

“He was very much a perfectionist,” Petra pointed out. “Sometimes he would write a letter thirty times before sending it. We know this because he kept all of the previous versions that he didn’t send. It was the same with his paintings.”

Two-thirds of Munch’s vast collection is owned by the Munch Museum, and the diversity of the permanent exhibit is extraordinary. Prior to his death in 1944, the artist willed his collection to the city of Oslo and today, the museum stands as a must-see destination in Norway’s capital.

I wondered if Petra got bored of working day after day on the same painter, and so I asked her: “What’s it like, dedicating your whole career to a single artist?”

“It’s wonderful,” she laughed. She has quite a personal passion for Norway’s legendary artist. “We are all fans of Munch, here. Even at lunchtime, we sit around and we talk about Munch.”


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