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It’s not often that art makes the mainstream media. This week, however, there are a number of articles about the upcoming auction of The Scream, one of the world’s most recognizable paintings, from the fertile if twisted mind of Norwegian Edvard Munch.

The Scream (Edward Munch, 1893)

There actually four versions of the painting and the one for sale in the Spring Sale of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby’s isn’t the one shown here but one from a couple years later. It is the only remaining version still in private hands and is expected to fetch $80 million on the block next week. The painting is the star in an auction that features a number of heavyweights, including Matisse, Picasso, Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Chagall. Most of the coverage of the auction centers on the prices the paintings will fetch, with a number of them listed with pre-sale estimates in the millions of dollars, and this is probably why the popular press is so interested.  There are auctions going on at other houses with other heavyweights featured. There’s going to a buttload of money spent in New York in the next couple of weeks.

The Scream is one of those images that has ingrained itself into our popular culture, having been postered and parodied and adapted in numerous ways. Everyone knows it. There’s even a Homer Simpson version, which I find a little disturbing. Suffice to say that even though almost none of us here in the US have seen the actual painting, it’s almost as familiar to us as, say, Pepsi. It has an odd resonance with Americans, who are basically cheerful people, because it is so deeply disturbing.

Munch himself was certifiably crazy and his melancholy was reflected in his art throughout his career. Both his mother and favorite sister died of tuberculosis   and he was raised by a rat-bastard of a father. Another sister went nuts. Munch himself spent time in an asylum. It wasn’t a Brady Bunch childhood.

Munch had this to say about his inspiration for The Scream, which sounds like, but may not have been, a hallucination:

“I was walking down the road with two friends
when the sun set; suddenly, the sky
turned as red as blood. I stopped and
leaned against the fence,  feeling
unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire
and blood stretched over the bluish black
fjord. My friends went on walking, while I
lagged behind, shivering with fear.
Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”

I find it hard to imagine this kind of inner pain and when I view Munch’s work, I don’t need to imagine it. Fear, isolation and death are right there on the canvas for everyone to see. Sunken, hollow eyes on expressionless faces do not make for a cheerful vibe. We can look right inside Munch’s madness and we’re better for it because we know that while such madness exists, it isn’t ours to suffer. In much the same way that the death of someone close can make us cherish our own lives, Munch can help us appreciate the sanity we cling to.

Evening on Karl Johan (Edward Munch, 1895)

“We do not pass away-
the world passes away from us.”

Edvard Munch

 

 

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