There are few instances when stealing from one of us is a theft from all of us. Perhaps the best example of such public revocations comes when great works of art are taken from their rightful owners. Today marks the 20th anniversary not of a major theft, but of an important return. On this day in 1994, The Scream, by Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch, was recovered after having been stolen for three months.
The 1893 painting which was created as a commentary on the stress and anxiety of life in the modern world features a gaunt figure, mouth agape with hands to its face. The angst-ridden form stands on a bridge, facing the viewer. It features bright blues, reds and oranges, but the mood is decidedly dark.
Ann Temkin, The Marie-Josée and Henry Kravis, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, who curated an exhibit of Munch’s work observes, “The startling power of Munch’s original work endures almost despite the image’s present-day ubiquity. The visual subtlety and complexity of this composition can’t be summed up in a cliché.”
As the MoMA exhibit narration explains, The Scream has captured the popular imagination since the time of its making. The image was originally conceived by Munch as part of his epic Frieze of Life series, which explored the progression of modern life by focusing on the themes of love, angst and death. Especially concerned with the expressive representation of emotions and personal relationships, Munch was associated with the international development of Symbolism during the 1890s and recognized as a precursor of 20th-century Expressionism.
The iconic painting was stolen in only 50 seconds during a break-in on February 12, the opening day of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. Two thieves broke a window of the National Gallery, cut a wire holding the painting to the wall and left a note reading “Thousand thanks for the bad security!”
According to history.com a few days after the theft, a Norwegian anti-abortion group said it could have the painting returned if Norwegian television showed an anti-abortion film. The claim turned out to be false. The government also received a $1 million ransom demand on March 3, but refused to pay it due to a lack of proof that the demand was genuine.
Police remained vigilant. First, they found pieces of the fragile painting’s frame. Then they identified one of the thieves, Paal Enger, an inveterate art thief. Enger was arrested, convicted and sentenced to six and a half years imprisonment. During that term, he managed to escape, but was captured only a few days later attempting to board a train while wearing a wig and sunglasses.
While the world would have continued to spin had Enger and his counterpart been successful, selfish deprivation of the world’s treasures diminishes all of us. Of course such acts aren’t limited to paintings — or to criminal acts. Through poor conservation, great works of music and film are regularly lost.
Here in Pine Bluff we see this process every time a quaint craftsman bungalow goes up in smoke or some fine old public building is allowed to succumb. As such, we need not be great patrons of the arts. Rather, we need to be better guardians of those resources that make our community different from every other plasticine planned community. Pine Bluff has so much that is special. We should act as such.