Silent scream

At around 11:10am on Sunday, 22 August 2004, two armed men walked into the Munch Museum in Oslo. They put a gun to the head of the only security guard on duty, took two paintings off the wall as incredulous gallery visitors looked on, and walked outside to a waiting Audi where a third man drove them off into the well-trodden halls of infamy.

Oslo is a staid, northern European city with a patrician air, the sort of place where Sunday mornings are more for attending church than the unsettling disturbances of major art thefts. Having left Oslo a week before the theft, I find it hard to imagine the city being capable of such monumental events.

Architecturally undistinguished and with a pulse that eludes all but long-term residents, the Norwegian capital’s saving grace is the fact that it boasts one of Europe’s more impressive collections of Western art; a collection distinguished with paintings by Gauguin, Picasso, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Matisse, El Greco and Cézanne. The centrepiece of this superb gathering of paintings is the body of work by the home-grown Edvard Munch.

The stolen paintings were two of Munch’s masterpieces. The Scream—one of Western art’s most recognisable images—is a deeply disturbing work, an ‘icon of existential angst’ captured in the face of a waif-like girl set against a sky the colour of blood. The other stolen work, Madonna, is similarly dark and compelling, the raven-haired woman at its centre a figure of mystery.

But it is The Scream which has captured worldwide attention. Painted with pastel on fragile cardboard, The Scream formed part of a series called ‘The Frieze of Life’, a tortuous and haunting collection of four very similar paintings by Munch in his pursuit of love, angst and death. The original painting known as The Scream now hangs in Oslo’s National Gallery, with the other two in the series held by the Munch Museum and a private collector. Perhaps it is the profound distress and vulnerability of the painting’s subject which has crystallised the world’s horror at the theft. More likely it is because The Scream, albeit the National Gallery’s version, has been stolen before.

It was on 12 February 1994—the day of the opening ceremony of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics and when Norwegians were basking in the glow of the world’s attention—that a passing policeman noticed a ladder propped up against the wall of the National Gallery. Inside, in place of the painting, was a note, ‘Thanks for the poor security’. Norway, and not to mention art lovers across the world, were appalled.

Stolen masterpieces are rarely recovered. There are 551 Picassos, 243 Joan Mirós, 210 Chagalls, 47 Van Goghs, 174 Rembrandts, 209 Renoirs, as well as the odd Vermeer, Caravaggio and Cézanne currently registered as missing. These stolen works most commonly disappear into the shadowy underworld to become bartering tools in the drug trade or to hang on the wall of a reclusive billionaire collector.

Fortunately for the Norwegian authorities in 1994, The Scream hadn’t disappeared but instead ‘fallen’ into the hands of an anti-abortion group demanding for its return $US1 million and the screening, during the Olympics, of a graphic film showing a foetus being aborted. One of the thieves, Paul Enger, announced the birth of his son in a national newspaper, with the notice that his child had arrived ‘med et Shrik!’ (with a scream). Clearly the thieves were not professionals. Within three months of the theft, the amateur thieves were fooled by a British detective posing as a buyer for the Getty Museum. The men went to prison, the painting was restored to its rightful place and, everyone agreed, lessons had been learned.

And yet, a little over ten years later, and on the 93rd anniversary of the theft of the Mona Lisa in Paris, new thieves were able to detach the paintings from the walls of the Munch Museum with the greatest of ease. Gallery visitors present at the time of the theft marvelled at how no alarms sounded and that the police took almost 15 minutes to arrive. In the days which followed, the ripples of disbelief spread across Norway and the world, due in no small part to the extraordinary admission by the museum and city authorities that they had decided against insuring the paintings because they were too valuable.

Evidence that not a single lesson had been learned from the previous theft came in the form of an astounding statement by Lise Mjoes, the director of Oslo’s art collections, ‘We can’t see that any mistakes were made. The guilty ones here were those who carried out the robbery’.

Confirmation that the city’s cultural authorities had entirely missed the point and were more adept at playing the victim than protecting the city’s priceless cultural heritage, came in the form of the Deputy Culture Minister, Yngve Slettholm, who claimed that art works could not be protected ‘unless we lock them in a mountain bunker’. He continued, ‘It is food for thought that the spiral of violence has now reached the art world. This is a first for Norway and we can only be glad that no one was hurt’.

Apart from the empty spaces on the walls of the Munch Museum, there remains a pervasive sense of disbelief. How could a painting too valuable to insure be entrusted to a museum which, unlike other major European art galleries, requires no security screenings of visitors, contains no alarms, nor any rigorous means of affixing artworks to its walls? The unavoidable answer is that this is, above all else, a story of naiive and scandalous neglect, a betrayal of great art and an abdication of responsibility towards the public for whom such masterpieces are supposedly held in trust.

 

 

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