I wish I am in London. To be a part of art history. The only version of Edvard Munch’s iconic work ‘The Scream’ still in private hands, is being presented at Sotheby’s London, before heading to New York for Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale on May 2. Where it is expected to fetch over US$80 million. “This is one of very few images which transcends art history and reaches a global consciousness,” said Simon Shaw, the head of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art department in New York. “‘The Scream’ arguably embodies even greater power today than when it was conceived. At a time of great critical interest in the artist, and with the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2013, this spring is a particularly compelling time for ‘The Scream’ to appear on the market.”
Munch’s ‘The Scream’ is a defining image of modernity. Everyone has an impression of this image. It is one the most instantly recognisable in art and popular culture, second only perhaps to Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Yet this image has a ‘double life’. While everyone knows ‘The Scream’, few have actually seen the original works. What we see are the cartoons and parodies. The haunting composition stands as the visual embodiment of modern anxiety and existential dread, referenced by everyone from Andy Warhol to The Simpsons. It inspired Wes Craven’s ‘Scream’ film franchise, and was imitated in posters for the “Home Alone” movies, starring Macaulay Culkin.
As the defining image of the Expressionist movement, The Scream stands as a pivotal work in the history of art. Munch created the image in the mid-1890s as the central element of his celebrated ‘Frieze of Life’ series. The powerfully-rendered, blood-red sky presents the reality of Munch’s experience at the moment he was gripped by anxiety in the hills above Oslo. Like his Dutch contemporary Vincent van Gogh, Munch’s desire was to paint a new form of reality rooted in psychological experience, rather than visual. It is this projection of Munch’s mental state that was artistically innovative. A landscape of the mind.
Munch created four versions of The Scream. The first, painted in 1893 from tempera and crayon on board, is in the National Gallery of Norway; another pastel version from the same year is thought to be a preliminary sketch for the work, and is owned by the Munch Museum in Oslo; the work on offer by Sotheby’s from the Olsen Collection, created in 1895 from pastel on board, most closely follows the first composition in the National Gallery; and a later version in tempera and oil on board, thought to be completed in 1910, is also in the collection of the Munch Museum. In addition, Munch created a lithograph of the image in 1895, which helped initiate the process of its mass proliferation.
‘The Scream’ was on the cover of Time magazine in 1961. Its cultural resonance was underscored further by two high-profile thefts. In 1994, at the start of the Olympic Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, two thieves entered the National Gallery of Norway and fled with the museum’s 1893 version. A successful sting operation brought the work back to the museum later that year, unharmed. A decade later, masked gunmen stole Munch’s 1910 version as well as his Madonna from the Munch Museum, also in Oslo. Both works were recovered two years later, and were back on exhibition in 2008.
Of the four versions, the piece on offer by Sotheby has never before been on public view in either the UK or US, except briefly in the National Gallery in Washington D.C. It distinguishes itself from the three others in several remarkable ways – it is the most colourful and vibrant of the four; the only version in which one of the two figures in the background turns to look outward onto the cityscape; and it is also the only version which still has the original frame, inscribed by Munch with a poem describing the state of mind which inspired the painting:
‘I was walking along the road with two Friends / the Sun was setting – The Sky turned a bloody red / And I felt a whiff of Melancholy – I stood / Still, deathly tired – over the blue-black / Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire / My Friends walked on – I remained behind – shivering with Anxiety – I felt the great Scream in Nature – EM’