Edvard Munch's painting The Scream (1895) has been headline news for weeks as Sotheby's publicized its forthcoming auction of the iconic work. When, on Wednesday, the bidding closed at nearly $120 million, radio stations in Boston, my home, interrupted programming to announce the news. The sale was a media sensation worldwide. This high degree of buzz can in part be attributed to the fact that this was the highest price ever achieved for a painting at auction. In this fragile economy, the spectacle of an international assembly of billionaires competing for the painting also offered a frisson of glamour, or excess, or gluttony, or passion, depending on one's point of view.
However, one other critical factor in the painting's extraordinary grip on the popular imagination is its very omnipresence: The Scream is one of the most immediately recognizable images in the world, thanks to its many appropriations by film and television entertainment (Wes Craven's "Scream," John Hughes and Chris Columbus's "Home Alone," Matt Groening's "The Simpsons"), and by cartoons and caricatures (think The New Yorker). Such products as the ubiquitous inflatable dolls or IceScreams (ice forms shaped like the little skeletal head) even isolate details of the painting to stand in for the whole. A pinched triangle with three dots at the center resembles The Scream. Through repetition, the painting becomes familiar. Through familiarity, the painting becomes part of our individual and collective imaginary. Through the imaginary, the painting becomes intimate to us. Through intimacy, we feel proprietary. Through such proprietary interest, the auctioning off of the painting seems personal. The Sotheby's publicity campaign only cemented this sensation.
In this regard, The Scream is unique. Few works of art have the distinction of structuring our consciousness as powerfully as The Scream. Want to emblemize environmental degradation? Reach for The Scream. Call out a politician who threatens the social good? Reach for The Scream. Nuclear proliferation? The Scream. Stress? Deadline? Homework? Traffic backup? Gun violence? Personal loss? The Scream is cultural shorthand, a floating symbol that is readily available for adaptation. When, as commentators have so often said this past week that The Scream is universal, it is precisely this mobility of use and yet consistency of meaning that is at play.
At the same time, this particular version of The Scream, one of four painted adaptations of the motif by Munch, invites the kind of attention and speculation that it has been granted. Munch painted the first version of The Scream in 1893 in a variety of media including tempera and crayon on unprimed cardboard. An uncompleted version of the same motif is painted on its backside. Considered the definitive version of the motif, it hangs in Oslo's National Gallery. An 1893 pastel version of the motif, and an oil version, painted in ca. 1910, belong to the Munch Museum in Oslo. Munch also made lithographic versions. All of the versions feature an undulating human figure, seemingly boneless, raising its hands to the sides of its skull-like face in the extreme foreground of an abstracted landscape. It stands on a bridge that is so radically telescoped that it seems to dislocate and shoot the figure out of the painting into our own space. Wrapped around the bridge is an undulating landscape formed by layers of land, sea, and sky, all of which fold in on themselves and echo the contours of the figure. The paintings' dissonant colors enhance the intensity of the linear forms, and the isolation and dislocation of the foreground figure is emphasized by the presence of two men, in the background, who pay him no heed. In this image, Munch mobilized every element of composition and of narrative to communicate, with immense mastery, horror and vulnerability.
The 1895 pastel newly sold at Sotheby's is unique among the versions, and perhaps all the more appealing to buyers, because it carries Munch's own frame (a rarity). In turn, the frame bears a lozenge-shaped plaque on which the artist painted an adaptation of his prose poem that encapsulates the experience that may have inspired the painted motif: "I was walking along the roads with two friends /the sun was setting - The sky turned a bloody red / And I felt a touch of melancholy - I stood / still, deadly tired - the blue-black / fjord and city were covered with blood and fiery tongues / My friends went on - I remained / alone - shivering with anxiety - I felt the great scream. Nature - EM." In other words, this Scream pairs image and text in an effort to call forth the operations of memory and perception. Encased within a frame of the artist's own making, the Sotheby's Scream is a complete ensemble, a signature work within a signature work.
The motif's cultural ubiquity and mobility, its formal power of expression, and its amalgamation of image and text are, further, made more desirable as a symbol and an object because of the greatly romanticized view of the artist. Within popular culture, and outside of specialist circles, Edvard Munch himself is viewed as isolated, psychologically burdened by early childhood trauma, depressed, and abject. As the eminent Munch scholar Reinhold Heller has often noted, Munch's image and that of his invented motif, The Scream, are often seen as mirror images. Munch certainly had his share of psychological baggage, but the historical record reveals that he was also a highly productive and disciplined worker and an astute businessman, organizing, for example, the first one-man exhibition in the history of Norwegian art, his own, in 1889. Nonetheless, the image of the poete maudit painting himself as the skeletal specter persists, and is compelling, as a platform for interpreting The Scream. Finally, the romance of The Scream is amplified by the shiver of criminality: The National Museum's version of The Scream was stolen spectacularly during the Lillehammer Olympic Games in 1994 and located several months later (the many back stories were recounted in Edward Dolnick's The Rescue Artist in 2006), and in 2004, the Munch Museum's version was stolen at gunpoint and recovered two years later.
The Scream, sold by Sotheby's, was the only version of this culturally significant motif remaining in private hands. The Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, who inherited the painting from his father, a neighbor of Munch's in the seaside town of Hvitsten, put the painting up at auction to finance a new museum of Munch's art in that town. The museum will display his father's collection. It is always a great joy to see privately held art works made available to the public. With the Sotheby's buyer still unnamed, one can only hope that this sale will yield a win-win situation, one in which a museum will be built in Norway to offer public access to a significant collection, and one in which the anonymous buyer will be revealed to be a public collection in which the broadest possible community of visitors can visit their cultural icon, private touchstone, and masterful work of early expressionist art. For the bidders who vied for The Scream, Munch's work may have been a trophy. But for the rest of us who have internalized the image through its many repetitions, adaptations, appropriations, and romances, a new home in a public museum would be the greatest prize of all.