It’s hard to say which is better known, “The Scream” or “Mona Lisa.” The DaVinci has been called priceless, Munch’s painting has the more exact price of $119,922,500.00, which is getting up there toward priceless.
You may wonder why anyone would pay around $120 million for a piece of board, no matter what was portrayed on it in pastel. Of course, this is more than a board with a pastel drawing on it. It’s a figure of a man screaming under a blood red sky. Furthermore, it’s a fine example of Expressionist art, and in the view of some critics Expressionism was the bridge between Impressionism and abstract art, so this work has historical value as well.
It’s also true — and this may contribute more to answer the question of why pay so much for this portrait — that the image is remarkably recognizable, hence famous. OK, so it looks like the crayon work of a talented but deeply troubled adolescent. But people who have seen any of the artist’s four versions of “The Scream” remember it. It’s been reproduced on mugs, in cartoons, T-shirts and even an inflatable toy the size of a small child. It doesn’t matter whether you see it in a book or tacked on a college dormitory wall, the image is wholly different from what you’ve seen before.
So, like a celebrity who is famous for being simply famous, the painting has become famous, ubiquitous. Social critics and pop psychologists have contributed their heavy insights, saying that “The Scream” embodies contemporary angst and that the 1895 art work was prescient, forecasting the dreadful times that lay ahead. And maybe you’ve learned that Munch wrote about the inspiration for the work and later painted it on the frame, as a poem: 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.
Finally, during the past few months Sotheby’s, the auction house which handled the sale, pumped the media full of curious information about the work and it’s probable sale price. And Sotheby’s did well. Every report from those who were at the auction sounds as if the auction was a spectacular theatrical event all of its own.
There’s been some speculation that whoever bought “The Scream” — and the price rules out the notion that a museum purchased it — sought it simply as a way to bank some of his or her millions. I mean, you have to put your money someplace, after all. The idea in this instance is that no matter the vagaries of the stock market, the painting will go up in value. We skeptics at Critical Pages don’t think so. We think paintings have a hard time getting big bucks at auction when the stock market has collapsed and, furthermore, there are fashions in art just as surely as there are fashions in clothing.
There’s no telling why whoever bought it wanted it so fiercely that he or she was willing to pay so much. We doubt it was a lust for art. Anyway, it’s more colorful than the “Mona Lisa.” And “Mona Lisa” wasn’t up for auction.