$120m for a painting? That's a scream


FOR A RELATIVELY small, simple painting, Edvard Munch’s The Scream exercises an extraordinary hold on the popular imagination. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in terms of iconographic status.

It’s sufficiently famous, indeed, to have become the most expensive artwork in the world, when an unidentified buyer paid $119,922,500 (€91,227,428) for it at Sotheby’s in New York on May 2.

An icon it may be, but it exists in several distinct though very similar versions and different media, including oil paint, tempera, lithography and, the one purchased in New York, pastels.

So even at that price the buyer doesn’t have exclusivity.

Munch produced the work in 1893, early on in what is generally considered to be his best creative period, which extended from around 1892 to 1908. During this time he turned out a succession of stark, emotionally powerful and usually very dark paintings, starting with The Kiss and including Madonna, Puberty, and, getting right to the point, Vampire. His friend August Strindberg described Vampire, in which a pale female form seems to drain the lifeblood from a supine male, as the perfect depiction of woman as nasty, ruinous seductress.

Yet Puberty, in which a nude girl perches uneasily at the edge of her bed, is a remarkably empathic account of female experience. The apprehensive subject seems poised at the edge of maturity as though at the edge of an abyss, wondering where life is leading her. An exceptionally popular work, it has inspired many contemporary artists including Kiki Smith and A.K. Dolven.

The peculiar magic of The Scream is less explicable. The screaming figure is reduced to a cipher, looking hardly human. In fact much scholarly speculation suggests that seeing a mummy of some form or another exhibited during the time he’d spent in Paris and elsewhere in Europe inspired Munch.

However he devised the figure, the immediate inspiration of the painting is more personal: “One evening I was walking along a path, the city [Oslo] on one side, the fjord below. I felt tired and ill . . . ” The setting sun, he said, turned the sky “blood-red.” He felt a scream or a cry running through the whole scene.

What happens in the image is that the distortions of the surroundings reflect the anguish of the wretched figure. One feels the whole world pressing in and overwhelming the subject in an extraordinary, direct way.

It’s as if the image is hard-wired into the nervous system. As a vision of anxiety and breakdown it expresses something central to the human condition. So much so that people easily identify with it. Indeed a surprisingly large number have become obsessed with it.

Perhaps that’s why several versions of The Scream have been frequently targeted to theft. With wearying regularity, thieves have taken one or other version, seemingly for motives other than simple profit.

Its fame takes some unexpected manifestations. It may be unique among works of art in playing a pivotal role in a horror movie franchise, one named after it: the Scream series initiated by Wes Craven’s 1996 film, in which the killer wears a mask based on Munch’s painting.

Born in 1863, Munch rejected cosy subject matter pretty much as soon as he began work as an artist: “No longer should you paint interiors with men reading and women knitting.” Rather the subject should be vulnerable beings who “breathe and feel and love and suffer”.

He was turning his back on both Nordic realism and French Impressionism, and he was a major forerunner of a much gloomier style: Expressionism.

It’s thought that the deaths, from tuberculosis, of his mother and his sister early in his life, and his autocratic, religiously obsessed father helped to shape his artistic vision. In elucidating the loneliness, trepidation and fear that stalks individual emotional lives, he helped to map out a new province for artistic exploration by the likes of Bergman and Beckett.