Munch gave museum some welcome PR

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Norwegian painter Edvard Munch and his most famous work The Scream provided some welcome publicity for Oslo’s new but still-unopened National Museum last week. The museum’s press release about his “hidden graffiti” on its version of The Scream seemed to grab more attention around the world, though, than it did at home.

A combination of infrared photography and handwriting analysis led curators to conclude that artist Edvard Munch had scribbled a sarcastic sentence in pencil on the version of his Scream that’s in the National Museum’s collection. PHOTO: National Museum

Major newspapers like The New York Times and The Times of London snapped up the release, even seemed to have been given a “scoop” on it, and it spread quickly internationally. Norwegian media, by contrast, mostly ran only brief items about how museum curators had confirmed that “a small and barely visible sentence” on its Scream had been “penned by the artist himself.”

Museum officials cited “years of speculation” over the “hidden graffiti” on the painting. Infrared photography finally showed that Munch himself had written in pencil that The Scream could “kun være malet af en gal Mand!” (could “only have been painted by a madman”). It’s believed that Munch slightly defaced his own art in response to harsh criticism of the painting after it debuted in 1895, when some critics questioned Munch’s mental state.

It’s not the first time the museum has solved a mystery around The Scream. It also claimed in 2016 that a smudge on its Scream had puzzled art experts for years, but it turned out to simply be wax from a candle that probably had been placed a bit too close to the painting. It’s literally handled with kid gloves these days but Munch himself was known for tossing his paintings around and even leaving them outdoors his studio in Oslo. The museum also noted in last week’s press release how The Scream “has become a radical and timeless expression of human anxiety.”

There’s been no lack of anxiety, meanwhile, over the frustrating situation at the museum itself over the past few years. New management controversially closed the museum’s much-loved National Gallery, where its Scream had been on display for decades, in January 2019, more than a year before the new National Museum was finally supposed to open last summer. The new museum will combine the collections of what had been four separate museums in Oslo: the National Gallery, the Museum of Applied Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Architecture Museum. Now the large new building on Oslo’s western waterfront, approved back in 2010 and initially expected to open in 2017, will be called the “National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design.”

Artist Edvard Munch and some other members of his family did suffer from depression, but it’s questionable whether he could be considered “a madman.” PHOTO: National Library

There have been numerous delays since its groundbreaking in 2014, even though construction began nearly seven years ago. Its cornerstone wasn’t royally laid until 2016 but an opening date was finally set for the summer of 2020. The unpopular decision to close the National Gallery 18 months ahead of that was criticized because it meant the public wouldn’t be able to see all their national treasures (including its Scream) for 18 months, at a time when the other museums were closing as well. Oslo’s Munch Museum, also set to move last summer into its new waterfront museum on the other side of town, let it be known that it, on the contrary, would remain open until as close to moving day as possible.

The National Museum went on a charm offensive of sorts, not least after its large new building rising just behind the Nobel Peace Center and across the plaza from City Hall was also criticized as ugly, boxy, and looking like a cross between a prison or a wailing wall. Then came more unwelcome news that problems with the delivery of critical “technical equipment” would further delay its opening until the spring of 2021. Similar trouble also ended up delaying the opening of the new Munch Museum, too, initially until the autumn of 2020. Trouble at the company supplying special security doors for both new museums caught most of the blame.

And then came Corona, which would have spoiled the museums’ delayed openings anyway. While the Munch Museum is now mostly ready and still hoping to open this summer, the National Museum disappointed art lovers once again when it announced last November that it wouldn’t open until “sometime in 2022.” Now the state agency in charge of the project, Statsbygg, blamed the “complexity” of the building and all its “strict demands for security, temperature and indoor climate.” Museum director Karin Hindsbo, who was hired in 2017 to guide the opening, wouldn’t even commit to whether it will open in winter, spring, summer or fall of 2022.

It all means that Norway’s art treasures will have been out of sight in a traditional museum setting for three full years, and maybe more. Not only has that upset many Norwegians, Munch himself may have been upset as well. He couldn’t always rely on public support or Norwegian bureaucracy either, even though he ultimately willed his entire personal collection of his own art to the City of Oslo. It then spent nearly 20 years building its first museum for it.

National Museum officials were thus perhaps keen to have something else to report last week apart from more delays and requests for extra state budget allocations. It remained unclear, noted newspaper Klassekampen, why the “mystery” of Munch’s “inscription” hadn’t been solved earlier given lots of expert examination of the painting over the years, “but it apparently wasn’t especially visible without an infrared camera. The rest of us will just have to wait until 2022.”

The museum’s own press release on the latest “Munch mystery” provided, at any rate, an opportunity to drum up international interest in the long-delayed museum, noting that “visitors will be able to see (Munch’s own graffiti) for themselves when the painting goes on display in the National Museum’s new building due to open in Oslo in 2022.” There was no mention of all the delays in the press release, and no more specific opening date was offered either.

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund