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September 6, 2015

The Scream: 4 Versions, 2 Thefts, 1 Forced Sale

Expressionist artist Edvard Munch created four principle versions of Der Schrei der Natur, one of the world's most recognisable works of art.   Known in popular culture as The Scream, the artwork has become an agonised symbol of modern anxiety and alienation.

But how do you tell the differences between four of the world’s most talked about works of art when the dynamic composition and its enigmatic character remain so similar from version to version? Each of the works of art contain minor differences in the spectacular skyline, with figures in the background of a foot path, a prominent wooden railing and a view overlooking the peninsula extending into a fjord with a cityscape beyond.  But what truly sets these celebrity artworks apart from one another is the fact that two versions were stolen from different Norwegian museums in 1994 and 2004 and a third has been the subject of an ownership controversy that dates back to the Second World War. 

1893 Version - 35 3/4 by 28 7/8 Oil, Tempera, Pastels and Crayon on cardboard, with tell-tale wax drips in the lower right.

On February 12, 1994, two men climbed a ladder and smashed through a window to enter The Nationalgalleriet in Oslo.  Using wire cutters, the art thieves clipped the framed painting free from the wall and made a speedy getaway.

The painting was recovered on May 7, 1994 with the help of an undercover operation by British detectives.  Tony Russell, and Dick Ellis of New Scotland Yard's famed Art and Antiques Squad worked closely with Detective Charles Hill who posed as an American art dealer representing The Getty.

1892 Version - 29 1/8 by 22 in., Crayon on cardboard 
Some individuals argue that this version of The Scream is Munch’s first attempt at rendering his historic image.  Its unfinished elements present as a more preliminary work and is remarkable in that one of the figures in the background appears to be looking out towards the fjord. This version is housed at the Edvard Munch Museet (Munch Museum) of Oslo and is the only one of the four "Screams" to not have had a checkered past. 

1895 Version - 32 by 23 1/4 in. Pastel on board
Sold for $119,922,500 at Sotheby's on May 2, 2012 billionaire Leon Black's purchase set the record for the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction. Mr Black is a trustee of MoMA and The Met. 

This version is Munch's most vibrant and some consider it more valuable due to a handwritten inscription the artist wrote on its frame.  

1910 Version -  32 7/8 by 26 in., Tempera, Oil and Crayon
This version and "Madonna", another of Munch's iconic works, were snatched from the Munch Museet (Munch Museum) by two masked men dressed in black and brandishing guns, who forced museum staff to take the paintings down from the wall and hand them over.

When both artworks were recovered two years later, The Scream was found to have sustained worrisome damages.  Despite the efforts of conservators, who worked tirelessly to repair most of the damage, the bottom-left corner of the painting was left washed out and scarred by a dirty brown watermark. Some say the damage and the artwork's theft only add to its value. 

Perhaps envisioning the success of his artwork or a premonition about their popularity with thieves Munch created approximately thirty Der Schrei der Natur lithographs in 1895, all with black ink, most on either white or cream paper. 

To get an idea of what landscape inspired this iconic painting, one need only read the inscription etched into the frame of the 1895 version.  It reads "I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. -TM"

Norwegians believe the artist was describing an overlook from a road called "Valhallveien" overlooking Oslo, the Oslofjord and Hoved√łya from the vantage of Ekeberg Hill.  If you want to know where that is why not check out pop culture detective Bob Egan's fantastic website.  He has also pinpointed the exact spots where some of the most famous album covers of all time were photographed.

By Lynda Albertson