By Gillian Brown
Gillian says: Scottish by birth, I live in southern France. I started as a travel writer but fiction stole my heart. Inspiration comes on walks amongst vineyards or along the beach. Or . . . out of nowhere, in the middle of the night!
An assortment of paints and brushes juggle for space on a trestle table. Sheets of blank canvas are stacked up against a wall, and splashes of colour streak the wooden floor. My attic studio is paid for by my employer. He doesn’t tell me his name. He doesn’t ask mine. “Safer that way,” he says.
There’s a knock at the door. Through the peephole I see another anonymous courier holding a package. I sign for the delivery and he hurries off. My fingers tremble as I carefully cut through the layers of stiff cardboard wrapping. Inside is a high-resolution photograph: Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The blood rushes to my head and roars in my ears.
I lean my back against the wall and force myself to concentrate. This is the Oslo National Gallery’s version – oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard. A growing unease creeps up my spine. A famous painting like this will be scrutinised for authenticity in excruciatingly-fine detail. More so than any of the lesser-known work I’ve copied before. Will this one be swapped with the stolen original? Or sold on as Munch? “The less you know the better,” my boss says. Either way, the task is daunting.
My mind flies back to my school days. “You have a special gift,” my art teacher said. When I told my dad, he laughed in my face. “Takes money to go to art school, son. I’ve signed you up as a plumber’s apprentice.” Once my dad’s mind was made up, an armoured tank couldn’t move it. I should know because the only thing we have in common is our ruthless determination. Whenever I dared disagree with him, he would drown me in a torrent of verbal abuse. His objection only strengthened my resolve and despite the road I’ve taken, my teacher’s words remain imprinted on my brain.
I still have visions of my paintings hanging in the National Gallery and the Tate Modern; the Louvre and the Guggenheim. One day, billionaire collectors will outbid each other for my work at Christie’s. In London. New York. Worldwide. These ambitions reverberate inside my head, stronger than ever. I glance around the studio. This job is an unavoidable deviation. Nothing more.
Returning my full attention to the Munch, a tightness grips my chest. The fear of getting caught still lies there, coiled like a snake ready to strike. And yet the painting draws me in. The central figure’s agonised features bear an uncanny resemblance to mine. Small nose. High cheekbones. Cropped hair. The madness in his eyes grips mine. A high-quality forgery of such a famous masterpiece will be worth millions. I tell myself: If my boss has confidence in me, I can do it. A surge of adrenaline rushes in. This is my ticket to freedom.
I remember the Fine Art evening class I signed up to back home. Dad would have exploded if he’d known. But all that hard work paid off. My painting technique improved ten-fold. My reproduction of Vermeer’s The Milkmaid astounded my tutor. “You could earn a living from this,” he said, sending wild thoughts into my head. Flurries of stardust beckoned. Pockets filled with gold.
Research confirmed that forgery paid better than legitimate reproduction. The temptation seized me by the throat. I took a gamble and shared my Vermeer copy with a dubious online contact. He was so impressed, we made a deal. I quit plumbing and secretly came to Norway. I convinced myself I’d be learning more skills. Soon I’d have enough money for art school. And to follow my dream.
Now, with the biggest challenge of my life before me, I hesitate. What if I’m being cheated? It’s a huge risk. I gather my thoughts. Breathe deeply. To go ahead, it must be worth it. Suddenly, it’s obvious. I must raise my fee and I’ll refuse to finish the work until the boss agrees.
My heart pounds against my ribs as I cut and prime the carefully-selected cardboard. I prop it up on my easel with the photo alongside. A photograph itself is seldom enough. A perfect replica depends on emotional understanding as much as technical perfection. In this case, vital. The pigment and materials must be an exact match of those used during that period. With no sign of modernity. I have all the necessary supplies. My boss is a thorough man.
But I’m in no fit state to start this now. I must sleep. Clear any lingering doubts. Be calm. I roll onto my camp-bed in the corner and close my eyes.
Next day at dawn, I focus my mind, recalling every detail of the original that I’ve studied countless times. “Store everything in your head,” the boss said. “Once you start painting, you must never return to the gallery again. If anything goes wrong, you’ll be on CCTV.” He’d sent me to every gallery in Oslo to study all the famous artworks, before I could even begin. Not only did I learn the artists’ technical secrets, I delved into their souls.
I select my materials and mix my paints remind myself of the importance of detached professionalism. Stepping up to the easel, I steady my hand and begin. From the first strokes, I become intoxicated by the smell of paint and its swirls of colour and shapes. Such immersion blurs reality. I forget the lies involved. The criminality. The danger. The anxiety of the central figure infiltrates my brain. His fear and panic storm inside my head.
For the next few weeks, I become Munch. His breath is my breath. His trauma is my trauma. I don’t exist. I am him. It’s exhausting work. Every evening when the light fails, I collapse on a chair, clear my head and force myself back to reality.
At night, the recurring nightmares begin. The crazed figure’s mouth gapes wide. A dark cave ready to suck me in. I try – but fail – to scream. Other times, the protective fence between the pier and the fjord judders and collapses, leaving me teetering on the edge. I wake myself up with a jolt, then lie rigid in bed until daylight comes and I must start again.
Each day, I sink deeper into Munch’s being. Sharing his torment. My brushstrokes take on their own direction. The artist’s panic cuts through me like razor-sharp splinters of glass. At times, his exaggerated and distorted style is liberating. At others, overwhelming. When memories of my dad creep in, each stroke becomes more violent. More explosive. I force myself to stay in control. My copy of the original must be exact to the very last detail.
There is an uncanny resemblance between Munch’s family history and my own. My mother’s clinical depression. My father’s schizophrenia. My own anxiety attacks. I have to keep reminding myself this painting is about Munch’s emotions. Not mine.
When the courier comes to collect my work, I tell him I’ve not finished. Determined, but nervous, I scrawl a note for my boss. I need more time. This one must be perfect. I pen the next words with such force that I leave rips in the paper. You know its worth. I cannot deliver without four times the usual payment. I sign my name with an exaggerated flourish. With this money, I can quit this prison, go straight, and become famous in my own right.
I seal the note carefully inside an envelope. The courier gives me a disinterested nod and a promise to deliver. All I can do is hope.
Once he is gone, snatches of Munch’s descriptions fill my head: The sky . . . blood red. Clouds . . . bloodstained swords. A black-blue fjord. An unending scream . . .
I add some final dabs to the tongues of red and gold in the sky and to the midnight blue of the fjord. Gripping the brush more tightly, I perfect the light and shade of the fence along the pier. My brush falters. The fence – Munch’s dividing line between sanity and lunacy – appears to wobble. The water seethes below. I quickly avert my eyes. My gaze settles on the words I’ve reproduced at the top right-hand corner: Could only have been painted by a madman. Each time I read it, prickles crawl up the back of my neck and tap the base of my skull.
Lastly, I focus on the skeletal figure’s mouth – inches from mine – stretched wide in a silent scream. Mesmerised, his hysteria seeps into my brain. Wires cross and snap in my head. I am beyond being Munch. I am the figure in the painting. My body twists and turns, exactly like his. Lightning streaks the sky above and strikes the crown of his head. My temples throb with pain. The storm breaks. I clamp my hands over my ears and let out an ear-splitting scream.
The door bursts open. Uniformed arms grab me. My dream disintegrates like craquelure on an ageing masterpiece.
I close my mouth but the scream goes on.