In my mind, travelers are hunters. What do you hunt for when you travel? Experiences, people, souvenirs? We all hunt for something.
I hunt for places.
We were in Oslo, Norway, my teenaged son and I, spending a few days before hopping a ship with Quark Expeditions 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, a pastel version owned by a Norwegian businessman, and two versions are held at the Munch Museum located on the outskirts of Oslo.
The Scream, as you may know, 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.
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 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.
So you know, we’re used to playing detective in the U.S. in search of special places. But this was another story.
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.”
Moments later, he emerged from the kitchen. I could see in his eyes, he knew.
Leading my son and I outside, he lit a cigarette and good-naturedly diagrammed our journey which involved about a mile hike up a deeply wooded path, several twists and turns until, he told us, we would be standing right at the site, precisely where Munch had been. “Good luck, my friends!”
Excitedly reaching the top of the path, the good chef’s directions stopped making sense. We cold not locate the paths he described. But we did find a RV park in a clearing. So we asked a woman who worked at the office desk for help.
With a broad, knowing smile, she nodded. She knew where the bridge was located? “Ah, you have arrived,” she said. “But there is no bridge. There never was a bridge.” Huh?
She explained that Munch had imagined the bridge, but that in reality it was merely a footpath where they walked, a walkway outlined in prehistoric stone. She added that we were a mere 100 yards or so form the path and that the stones were still there? Was this it?
We rushed across the field in the rain and spotted the rocks embedded in the ground. There was a plaque on one of them. Had someone commemorated the Munch landmark?
Breathlessly, we examined the plaque, which read, “Skalgroper fra bronsealdren. 1800 f.Krf, – 500 f.Krf.”
Some strange Munch code reserved for history detectives such as ourselves? Nearby, a male groundskeeper was working. We brought him over to translate. He read it.
The plaque marked the remains of an ancient, Ice Age glacier.
Pleading our case to him he, lit up. “Ah, Munch! Shriek! Yes! I will direct you!”
So he sent us down yet another path. Charlie discovered the local equivalent of poison oak – but no Munch. I approached a woman walking her dog to ask – she appeared to develop a toothache due to my presence. “What” she grimaced? “No Munch, no Munch!”
Undaunted, we retreated to the office, where a new woman was at the helm. I explained how her counterpart had sent us to the rock path. With a raised eyebrow Catherine Deneuve smile and a coy shake of the head as if to say “you people are crazy,” she took up our cause. She called the curator at the Munch Museum and obtained a new version of where we should go.
So we set off on a new path, through more miles of fields and muddy paths. But no bridge.
Charlie wanted to press on but it was getting dark and so I told him, sadly, that we best call it a day.
Heading down the original path, we finally got to the restaurant where the adventure started. The head chef was out back, having another smoke and jawing with some of the servers when he saw us –chilled and a bit demoralized. He called out, “Did you find it?”
I explained everything. And he was concerned. “It’s up there, guys. Even a little sign as I recall.”
He repeated his original directions once more and Charlie said, “Dad, that’s the last spot where we just were – where I wanted to continue.”
What to do but head back up the hill, right?
This time though, it all clicked. Charlie was right. Rounding a bend that we had almost reached before, there it was. The bridge. Overlooking the city. Precisely where Munch stood. And we lined it up with the original.
“… I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature,” Munch wrote.
Right here where we stood, in the geographic pocket of his creation – connected to his muse.
Though a few may have initially found us to be as crazed as the person in Munch’s Expressionist masterpiece, we made some lovely acquaintances today – adventure, mystery and “the hunt” seem to be universal magnets. People stopped what they were doing – they made calls – they gave us warm smiles on a damp, dreary day.
In the end, we found it – and like so many places we’ve tried to locate, as elusive as it seemed – it was right there all along – almost in front of us.
The lesson for us is something we experienced many times before. We can’t be afraid to explore – to dig deep and to connect. You never know where it may lead, perhaps to a bend in the road high in the Oslo hills, overlooking a fjord, to a place where an artist met a ghost.
Chris Epting is the author of 20 travel/history books, including James Dean Died Here (Santa Monica Press), Roadside Baseball (McGraw Hill) and Hello, It’s Me, Dispatches From a Pop Culture Junkie (Santa Monica Press). He has contributed articles for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, Westways and Travel + Lesiure magazine, and writes a weekly newspaper column for the Huntington Beach Independent. Originally from New York, Chris now lives in Huntington Beach, California with his wife and their two children.
“In Search of The Scream in Norway” won a Gold Award in the Destination category of the Seventh Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.