Paint­ing’s pric­etag could make you Scream

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - ALI­SON GILL­MOR

WHAT IT IS: The Scream, an 1895 pas­tel-on-board work by Ed­vard Munch that sold at auc­tion last week at Sotheby’s. An un­named buyer shelled out $119.9 mil­lion for this dis­til­la­tion of ex­is­ten­tial dread, a record­bust­ing sum that caused a few more shrieks.

Locked-out union­ized art han­dlers and Oc­cupy Wall Street pro­tes­tors out­side Sotheby’s de­nounced it as a sym­bol of art for the one per­cent. Oth­ers saw the sale as an apoc­a­lyp­tic sign of an in­flated art bub­ble that’s bound to burst.

WHAT IT MEANS: The Nor­we­gian artist cre­ated from his own ex­pe­ri­ence. Walk­ing over a bridge on the edge of Oslo one evening with two friends, Munch started to trem­ble with anx­i­ety, struck with the ap­pre­hen­sion of “an in­fi­nite scream pass­ing through na­ture.” In Munch’s work, the fig­ure’s silent Oshaped cry ra­di­ates out visu­ally, cranked up to shiv­er­ing in­ten­sity through swoon­ing line and su­per-in­tense colour.

Faced with such a naked im­age of con­tem­po­rary un­ease, we seem to have an im­pulse to ex­plain. In one lump­ishly lit­eral in­ter­pre­ta­tion, a group of astronomers sug­gested that Munch was just ob­serv­ing a nat­u­ral phe­nom­e­non: Ear­lier, in 1883, Europe had un­usu­ally fiery sun­sets be­cause of the vol­canic ex­plo­sion of Kraka­toa.

But Munch doesn’t “just ob­serve” any­thing. He feels, and his sig­nal con­tri­bu­tion to 20th-cen­tury art was to make this twist­ing, ob­ses­sive emo­tion the ba­sis of his art. Colour doesn’t de­scribe in Munch’s work; it ex­presses, with a dark and bloody in­ten­sity.

A more plau­si­ble sci­en­tific take on the im­age sug­gests that Munch is giv­ing vis­ual form to an ago­ra­pho­bic panic at­tack. His child­hood was shad­owed by the deaths of his mother and a beloved sis­ter, So­phie, from tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, and his later life was marked by the men­tal break­down of an­other sis­ter and by his own anx­i­ety, al­co­holism and un­remit­ting sense of Nordic doom. “Sick­ness and mad­ness and death were the black an­gels that stood at my cra­dle,” he once wrote in his jour­nal.

WHY IT MAT­TERS: Munch made two oil paint­ings, two pas­tels and many prints of this im­age be­tween 1893 and 1910. (Two ver­sions in Nor­we­gian mu­se­ums have been stolen — and later re­cov­ered.) The Scream has been fur­ther repli­cated in pop­u­lar cul­ture, from a Dead Kennedys al­bum cover to the hooded killer in the Scream movies, through a raft of ref­er­ences in The Simp­sons, the Home Alone flicks and a bizarrely cheer­ful Pon­tiac Sun­fire ad. Slowly, Munch’s in­deli­ble ex­pres­sion of angst has be­come in­creas­ingly jolly and self-par­o­dy­ing, cul­mi­nat­ing in fun-for-the-whole-fam­ily mer­chan­dise like plush dolls and fin­ger pup­pets.

The Scream is in­stantly rec­og­niz­able, rank­ing just be­hind the in­escapable Mona Lisa in art-his­tor­i­cal fa­mil­iar­ity. Once com­pelling, it is now over-ex­posed. A Sotheby’s spokesper­son might call it “the defin­ing im­age of moder­nity,” but it could be that The Scream has be­come a stag­ger­ingly ex­pen­sive vis­ual cliché.

Best to stick to the fin­ger pup­pet.

Art his­to­rian Ali­son Gill­mor looks be­neath the sur­face of news­wor­thy art.

An un­known buyer shelled out $119.9 mil­lion this week for The Scream.

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