It is one of the most enduring icons in art. At $120m (£74m), when Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895) went under the hammer at Sotheby’s yesterday, it became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction. So, the question that always gets asked when pieces of paint (or pastel in this case) on canvas, (cardboard here), sell for a lot of money: Is it worth it?
Well, of course it is. Munch created four versions of this, his most famous work, three of which are owned by galleries or museums. Supply is short and demand is high; the opportunity to own the only version in private hands does not come around very often.
This version is the most vibrant in colour of the four, but more importantly the frame contains the poem by Munch that inspired the work:
“I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city.
“My friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
Works such as this undeniably have mass appeal. We can relate on a visceral level to the emotions of love, pain, anger, hope, fear and abandon that Expressionist art presents.
The Scream is part autobiographical; Munch lost his father a few years previously and found himself financially responsible for his family. Wealthy relatives refused loans; his work was generally ridiculed by the critics; his love-life was in tatters and he found himself spiralling into depression. “For several years I was almost mad… You know my picture, ‘The Scream?’” he said, “I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”
But there is a more pressing universal theme too. The turn of the century, or Fin-de-Siècle, as the period became known, was a vastly uncertain time. Europe was experiencing a period of extreme political, social and economic change. Nineteenth century French philosopher and poet, Charles Péguy, observed that the world ‘has changed less since Jesus Christ than it has changed in the last thirty years’. In 1900 it would have been hard to argue with this statement.
For the preceding millennia, navigation had been achieved on land by foot or by animal and over water by rowing or sailing vessel. The nineteenth century saw an unprecedented rate of change in transport mode and speed; the birth of the steam train and steam boat; the motorcar.
Great social change occurred as the industrial revolution drove people away from the country and into the sprawling cities. Similarly wealthier classes could enjoy leisure breaks, escaping the city solely for a weekend and spend it in the country. Literature such as Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ vehemently expressed the technological progression. Religious ideologies changed too as the dominance of the Church was increasingly confronted by science and philosophy. Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution challenged the story of the Creation in the Bible and Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of man usurping God in his works ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ and ‘The Gay Science’. Even international conflicts such as the Franco-Prussian or Boer Wars became an increasingly abstract entity as the ancient custom of hand-to-hand combat disappeared with man’s subordination to mechanic weaponry.
With the technological and socio-political development in Europe lay great anxiety too. How could society fully comprehend the implications of these changes? Where was the world heading as the twentieth century approached? This concern was expressed by artists and philosophers throughout the continent.
And that, my friends, is what The Scream is all about; the loss of the artist’s faith in life coupled with nature’s reaction in the face of such unprecedented change.
By Edward Lines