On May 2, Edvard Munch’s The Scream will lead Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York. Munch created four versions of the image, but the one at Sotheby’s, pastel on board from 1895, is the only one still in private hands. The work is poised to join the ranks of the most expensive paintings of all time, among works by Cézanne, Picasso, Van Gogh and Andy Warhol with an estimated price of $80,000,000.
The Scream’s prominence in recent popular culture is undeniable – the haunting face has appeared in everything from The Simpsons and the horror movie Scream to coffee mugs, M&M ads, and a series of Andy Warhol prints, making it one of the most recognizable images in the history of art.
The Scream’s enduring significance is connected with post-industrial anxiety and Munch’s own internal torment. In 1895 Munch was living in Germany, entrenched in the country’s volatile national climate. Still deeply affected by his difficult childhood and the death of his mother and sister, Munch was often described by friends as depressive, unstable, and neurotic. In contrast to the whimsical and tangible nature of the French Impressionist art popular at the time, Munch tended towards the spiritual, determined to depict the serious nature of emotions and the human experience. While Gauguin and Van Gogh had also begun on this path, Munch’s work departed from strict physical observation and instead centered on his own inner psychological landscape, his “soul’s diary.”
With The Scream, Munch set the standard for the coming Expressionist movement: an embodiment of inner tensions laid bare on canvas. The Scream was the culmination of his series Frieze of Life, in which he explored the pain of human existence and the uncontrollable forces of death and love. An inscription on the piece up for auction reads: “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.”
The Scream’s overwhelming, uninhibited display of emotion, rendered with dramatic color and line, has evoked an immediate, visceral response from viewers over the last century. “It is the ultimate image of angst and anxiety,” said Philip Hook, senior specialist at Sotheby’s. “It’s an image of modern man’s alienation – the face that launched a thousand therapists. In a sense it is the whole beginning of modern man’s fascination with his own emotions.” From his own inner turmoil, Munch produced an image that captured the attention of the world; an achievement now set to be worth $80,000,000.