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“The Scream”

Munch  - The Scream

Oh, my God! I just spent $120 million on a pastel drawing!

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.

That helps.

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 Mona Lisa 200price 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.

Who Was Ernest Meissonier?

Dejeuner sur l'herbe 460

Dejeuner sur l'herbe

You know who painted the glorious sun-shot scene just above. (You’re right, it’s by Claude Monet.) And you know who painted the scandalous nude below. (Right again, it’s by Édouard Manet.) And you can probably recognize a painting by Berthe Morisot or, if not a Morisot, surely a few peaches by Cézanne or a dancer by Degas. You’re familiar with these 19th century painters because you like their works. In fact, a great many people enjoy paintings by Manet and Monet and Cezanne and Pissarro and Seurat and – well, the list goes on.



As printing technology and inks evolved over the past hundred years, copies of images by these painters spread across Europe and the West. Reproductions of their paintings are now for sale everywhere from classy shops offering expensive prints to book stores selling illustrated kitchen calendars. But have you ever heard of Ernest Meissonier? Have you ever looked at one of his paintings? Have you ever seen even cheap print of his work? (If you said No, you’re in the great majority.) Yet in the world of art, Ernest Meissonier held top place far above those other painters. In fact, he was the most famous and, as a result, the richest painter in the Western Hemisphere. And he wasn’t just a pop success. He was the favorite of art critics, was showered with awards, and his paintings commanded the highest prices. Here below is one of his better known works.

Campagne de France by Ernest Meissonier

Now you know. Meissonier was most highly regard for his exactitude – he was a great horseman and at one point had a special mini-railroad track laid out so he could be pulled in a cart along side a galloping horse to study the movements of the horse’s legs with greater accuracy. He had a collection on military garments and knew the position and color of every button and ribbon; he once had a group of cavalry ride across a wheat field, trampling it so he’d be able to more accurately portray a particular battle which involved such a scene.

But political, social and cultural forces are always changing, and what constitutes the best in art evolves with those changes. France and the city of Paris itself underwent great and at times horrific changes, and these inevitably played out in galleries and salons as well. Precision and exactitude, polish and finish, lost favor to a new way of portraying the world. The revolutionary and sometimes scandalous vision of painters like Manet and Courbet began to make sense to people. And Ernest Meissonier went into eclipse, a penumbra  from which he’s unlikely to emerge. (more…)

More Notes

Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.