By Chris Epting
An author known for tracking down the sites of famous events or settings goes in search of the spot in Norway that inspired one of the world’s most famous paintings.
In my mind, all travelers are hunters. What do you hunt for when you travel?
Experiences, people, souvenirs?
I hunt for places.
We were in Oslo, Norway, my teenaged son and I, spending a few days before hopping a ship to explore around the Arctic archipelago called Svalbard.
Our first day, we stopped at the National Gallery, not for the Van Goghs or Gaugins or Cezannes. We wanted to see the most famous local painting: Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Pop culture artifact that it was, is and will probably always be, we have long been fascinated by this masterpiece, born of a tortured moment on what appeared to be a bridge.
In his diary, Munch wrote: “I was walking along a path 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.”
But where was the spot? Where is the exact site that inspired that painting? Did it really even exist?
Also called The Scream of Nature, The Shriek and The Cry, there are actually four versions of the painting in existence. There’s the one in the National Gallery, two versions are held at the Munch Museum located on the outskirts of Oslo, and a pastel version was owned by a Norwegian businessman until he recently decided to put it put it up for auction. (Expected price to buy it: around $80 million.)
The Scream, as you may have heard, has been the target of several high profile art thefts. Back in 1994, the National Gallery piece was swiped but recovered several months later. In 2004, a Munch Museum piece (along with another Munch piece, The Madonna) were stolen but later recovered.
And here we stood before one of them. It was surreal, as it always is, to stand close enough to touch a piece of art you have dreamed about. To see the textures of the paint, the wear and tear; the life it has lived.
I’ve written a number of books on locating the exact places in pop culture history in North America. My son shares my passion and between us, we knew what mission lie ahead: we simply had to locate the path where Munch was the moment consumed him— the birthplace of The Scream.
Getting Clues From the Munch Museum
The sun-drenched postcard of Oslo Day One was replaced on Day Two by a gray, bone-chilling, wet blanket sky. Getting off the train at Oslo Central Station, we were treated to Oslo’s grittiness as the locals, all steel-eyed and stoic, marched off to work.
Charlie and I soon hopped another train, which took us just outside the soggy city to visit the Munch Museum. Rare is the reliquary dedicated to a single artist; it’s a good opportunity to get fully immersed in one person’s visions(s).
We found the modest, but sleek and industrial-looking building easily enough. As soon as we entered, we were immersed in many of Munch’s classic works.
I interviewed the curator of the museum and we discussed many of Munch’s daring, seductive works, but of course it all came back to The Scream—that phantasmagoric, tortured portrait of a howling being.
Gently, I asked about the actual location that inspired the mad portrait — what appeared to be a bridge (that is actually featured in other works by Munch, as well). He was curious as to why we wanted to find it, and I explained out fascination with cultural geography; the need and longing to enter a space that, due to planning, luck or just coincidence, had been brushed by something hallowed.
With a bit of mysterious glee in his eye, he gave us a cryptic clue. “Take the train outside the city to Ekeberg. Near the stop there is a restaurant, a large white building. Ask in there. They will help you.”
And so in the rain, on this steel blue day, we set off. Little did we know that what lie ahead was a daylong adventure—a rigorous, comical, frustrating, ultimately thrilling treasure hunt.
We’re used to playing detective in the U.S. in search of special places. But this was another story.
The Bridge That Wasn’t
We found the restaurant after exiting the train at Ekeberg. It sat atop a steep hill that over looked the city, and we must have looked like two tired, waterlogged scarecrows as we approached the hostess in what turned out to be quite an elegant little spot. Beautiful but aloof, she seemed hardly interested in helping two wayward tourists at the peak of a busy lunch service. I explained to her what the curator had told me — but she knew of no Munch location in the heavily wooded area above the restaurant.
I tried several times to engage her, but each time was shot down with a more terse denial — “I know nothing about a painting.” Then, something happened. I must have seemed just pathetic enough that she offered, “Let me ask the chef.”