What do you hunt for when you travel? Experiences, people, souvenirs?
I hunt for places. Today, we leave our traditional RV terrain for a slightly far-off adventure I took.
We were in Oslo, Norway, my son Charlie and I, spending a few days before hopping a ship to explore around the Arctic archipelago called Svalbard.
On our first day, we stopped at the National Gallery, not for the Van Goghs or Gaugins or Cezanne. We wanted to see the most famous local painting: Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Pop culture artifact that it was, is, and probably always will 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.
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) was stolen but later recovered.
And here we stood before one of them.
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 anxiety 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 our 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 lay 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.
We arrived at the restaurant and I spoke with a young employee about the painting. 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, a man emerged from the kitchen. I could see in his eyes, he knew.
Leading my son and me outside, he lit a cigarette and good-naturedly diagrammed our journey. It 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 could not locate the paths he described. But we did find an 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.”
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 from 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!”
Ready to Scream
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 and a 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 that day. 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.
Read more from Chris Epting here.
Chris Epting is an author, award-winning journalist/photographer and dedicated road tripper. His best-selling books including James Dean Died Here (the locations of America’s pop culture landmarks), Roadside Baseball, and The Birthplace Book, along with many others that remain popular with many travelers and RVers throughout the country and world. He is excited to be contributing to RVTravel.com and looks forward to helping to lead you places you may not have discovered otherwise. You may learn more about Chris at his author’s site, www.chrisepting.com.