Last updated: April 21, 2012 12:23 am

So, what does ‘The Scream’ mean?

Tipped to reach a record price at auction next month, Edvard Munch’s painting is one of the world’s most recognisable and disturbing images

Next month sees the sale at auction of one of the most famous works of art to come on to the open market. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s in New York on May 2. It promises to be an eventful evening. The auction house has slapped its highest-ever estimate on the picture, hoping it will fetch at least $80m. It may even surpass the record for a work of art at auction, set at Christie’s New York two years ago when Pablo Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” was sold for $106.5m.

But there is something more significant at play here than just numbers. “The Scream” is one of the most disturbing images to come out of the history of modern art. It depicts a moment of psychic calamity, of shattered nerves. Munch intended, when he first created the image in 1893, to record “the modern life of the soul”; and what a fraught, anxiety-ridden vision it was. For decades his distorted vision was regarded as an eccentric by-way of expressionism, laden with Nordic gloom and unnecessary cosmic pessimism.

Yet here we are, the world’s hyper-rich leading art collectors seemingly poised to make “The Scream” one of the most valuable artistic images ever created. A vision from the haunted dusk of the 19th century has found its moment more than 100 years later. Munch has hit the mainstream. We are finally strong enough to stomach his scream. Someone, somewhere in the world is busy planning to pop this icon of human disintegration above the fireplace, at enormous cost. We are, it seems, past the age of water lilies and sunflowers. The swirling chaos and vacant expression evident in Munch’s most famous work has become a touchstone for our troubled times.

That is not how it was always seen. Petter Olsen, the Norwegian businessman who is selling the work, grew up with “The Scream”. “It was hanging there on our wall, in a corner,” he recalls. “My parents tried to explain that it was a very important picture. When I was a child I thought this person was a woman with long blonde hair with a beautiful sunset behind her. In some other of his paintings I saw the hidden trolls.

“In my early twenties I read books about Munch and visited his little house in Aasgaardstrand. Then I discovered the meaning of his art.”

We are speaking in the boardroom of Sotheby’s London office, surrounded by Damien Hirst butterfly paintings. Their glossy, decorative effect stands as a counterpoint to Munch’s soul-searching picture, which is having its public viewing downstairs. The auction house has installed airport-type security measures for anyone wishing to enter the dramatically darkened room in which “The Scream” is impressing a steady flow of visitors. This version, dating from 1895 and the only one to remain in private hands, is one of four “Screams” made by Munch; two of the others have been stolen, and then recovered, from museums in Oslo.

'The Scream’©Munch Museum

Munch’s ‘The Scream’ (c1910)

Auction houses, which need to sell pictures to survive, have a flair for presenting art works to the public in a more stylish way than public galleries can afford to. So it proves with “The Scream”. Inside the room, which has a “half-chapel, half-nightclub” air, as Sotheby’s senior specialist Philip Hook describes it, the vivacity of Munch’s pastels is shocking. This version has never been seen in the UK or the US, save for a brief sojourn in Washington’s National Gallery decades ago.

There is another reason that makes this arguably the most compelling of the four “Screams”: it is the only one that incorporates the artist’s poem, written in his own hand, on which his vision was based:

“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 – EM.”

Olsen, 64, says that those words meant little to him as he was growing up. “It is only recently that I have understood what ‘The Scream’ is about even though my parents tried to explain to me this feeling of ‘anxiety’ and ‘the great Scream in Nature’.

“Munch’s hand-painted poem on the frame ends with those words. It is as if he has had a premonition of what man was going to inflict on nature.” It corresponded, says Olsen, with “this feeling of doom in Vienna and Berlin in the 1890s, ‘der Untergang des Abendlandes’ [the decline of the west], the end of an era.”

Almost inevitably, “The Scream” itself has a fraught history. It was Olsen’s father Thomas, whose grandfather founded the Fred Olsen & Co shipping company, who bought the picture from a Scandinavian dealer in 1937. Thomas had been a friend and patron of Munch since the 1920s. “My father learnt to sail in Hvitsten at the time when Munch established himself there and painted naked women and men on the beach. Munch lamented how the young sailors repeatedly capsized close to where he was working,” says Petter Olsen.

“In 1932 Munch painted a portrait of my mother Henriette. Then they got to know each other well. They spoke a lot about art and politics and kept in touch through the 1930s.” When Munch’s work was declared degenerate by the Nazis, museums across Germany were stripped of his art. “My father was instrumental in rescuing 74 of his art works by striking a deal with the German government in 1937.”

“The Scream” was not among them but it was in Olsen’s personal collection of some 35 of the artist’s works, which the businessman chose to hide in a hay barn in central Norway after war had formally been declared, but well ahead of the German invasion of Norway in April 1940.

“They could have been hit and destroyed when the King and government stayed for some days on our neighbouring farm when fleeing from the Germans,” says Olsen. “The Scream” remained there until the liberation in 1945. As a token of gratitude to Britain for taking him in when he fled the Nazis, Thomas Olsen presented one of Munch’s most notable paintings, “The Sick Child”, to the Tate gallery.

Petter Olsen inherited “The Scream” after a legal wrangle with his brother Fred over his mother’s inheritance, which was settled in court in 2001, and the two are still not on speaking terms. (Fred Olsen’s own Munch works were sold by Sotheby’s in London in 2006, fetching almost £17m.) In addition to the paintings, Petter has inherited his father’s passion for disseminating the artist’s work more widely.

He has bought Munch’s property in Hvitsten, next to his own family’s property, and plans to turn it into a museum dedicated to the artist, financed from the sale of “The Scream”. “We will be part of the Munch 150th anniversary celebrations next year, with an exhibition on the Oslo university auditorium decorations that he created there at Ramme.”

While the picture’s art historical provenance is full of drama and intellectually fascinating, it does not fully explain the allure that the image continues to hold in contemporary times. Philip Hook, in an essay for the lavish single work catalogue produced for the sale, argues that it is the second most immediately recognisable art work in the world, after the “Mona Lisa”. “ ‘The Scream’ is the image that launched a thousand therapists,” he writes. “It is the ultimate embodiment of fear, angst and alienation, and by extension it has come to symbolise a negative emotional reaction to just about everything.”

Andy Warhol’s ‘The Scream'

Andy Warhol’s ‘The Scream (After Munch)’ (1984)

As a result of its universality, parodists and plunderers have made merry with “The Scream”. Just a few weeks ago, at the end of March, Sotheby’s sold an Andy Warhol screenprint, “The Scream (After Munch)” for more than £300,000. Warhol, never a man to miss an opportunity for ironic homage, made only minor distortions to Munch’s original image.

There are “Scream” mugs, tea towels, T-shirts. The child actor Macaulay Culkin aped the open-mouthed expression of horror in an advertising poster for Home Alone. The villainous protagonist (and, of course, the title) of Wes Craven’s Scream series of schlock horror movies is based on Munch’s startled figure. The New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik quotes his cartoon editor, who says the magazine receives about two “Scream”-inspired cartoons a week.

Bizarrely, an advertising campaign for M&M sweets featured the haunting image to promote its “dark” (get it?) chocolate range. More bizarre still, when the 1910 version of the picture was stolen by masked gunmen from Oslo’s Munch Museum in 2004, Masterfoods USA offered 2m of the sweets for the painting’s return. (The picture was recovered two years later, and the financial value of the sweets was donated to the museum.)

Hook’s colleague Simon Shaw, head of impressionism and modern art for the auction house in New York, says it is the malleability of the picture’s imagery that has made it ripe for appropriation by our promiscuous visual age. “Munch is very clever not to explain what the hell he means. [The picture’s] ability to bear so many meanings means it can be whatever you want it to be.

“But it is also an unforgettable, powerful, dense image. If you go to see the ‘Mona Lisa’, it looks exactly as you expect it to look. But with ‘The Scream’, people are not prepared for it. They think they know it because they know the cartoons, the pastiches, the parodies. But the original is something else. Its power to shock remains undiminished.”

In a society that is more fast-moving, multilayered and disorienting than ever before, “The Scream” has come to stand for our various states of anxiety, from fear of leaving the oven on when we leave the house, to personal tragedy. “Munch may have had this prescient view of the manifold horrors to come in the 20th century,” says Shaw. “But we all empathise with him because we all have our own personal ‘Screams’. And that universality is exactly what Munch was trying to achieve. He was a showman. And this picture came from nowhere, and then disappeared, and never came back.”

The enduring resonance of “The Scream”, says Hook, makes it one of those rare works that transcend the trends of the art market. The high estimate quoted by Sotheby’s is based on some hefty results in recent years at the top end of the market – the Picasso painting and Alberto Giacometti’s “L’Homme qui Marche I” at auction, and the private sale of Paul Cézanne’s “Card Players” for a reported $250m, and Jackson Pollock’s “No 5, 1948” for a reported $140m.

‘Home Alone’ poster©Allstar

Parody: ‘Home Alone’ (1990)

In addition, a far less imposing work by Munch, “Vampire”, sold for $38.2m in November 2008, when the art market was in a perilous dip following the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The market can be a difficult animal to read but there seems little doubt that Munch’s stock is high. Major gallery exhibitions recently devoted to the artist include Edvard Munch: The Modern Eye, which impressed at Paris’s Pompidou Centre and Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle and which opens at Tate Modern in June.

But Hook confesses to a certain amount of guesswork in trying to predict the price “The Scream” will fetch. “There may well be interest from people who don’t normally buy in this field,” he says. “It is a tremendously trophy-orientated market at present, and this is a major trophy.”

Olsen remains calm about the loss of the picture. “It has become too important to keep in my home. It should be seen by many people. Of course there is the danger that it will disappear but it is also a fact that private lenders provide many works of art for major exhibitions.” He hopes that the publicity given by the sale will increase public interest in the work.

He is, in the meantime, passionate about the message that he belatedly embraced. “‘The Scream’ for me shows the horrifying moment when man realises his impact on nature and the irreversible changes that he has initiated, making the planet increasingly uninhabitable.” Munch’s masterwork may have saved its loudest howl for our own complacent age.

Peter Aspden is the FT’s arts writer.

When Cocteau came to Soho

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Realist and revolutionary: Jackie Wullschlager on Edvard Munch’s life and work

Edvard Munch was born in December 1863, months after Manet painted his rebellious prostitute “Olympia”, and died in 1944, the year Francis Bacon completed the screaming abstracted forms of “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”. It says much about his fluid, shape-shifting modernity that Munch can be considered in the context of either work – he is at once a realist reeling from social and psychological tensions caused by women’s emancipation, and an existentialist avant la lettre.

Edvard Munch in his studio©Munch Museum

Pioneer: Munch at work in his studio c1930

In the 19th century, Schopenhauer claimed the limit of an art work’s power of expression was its inability to reproduce a scream, “das Geschrei”. Answering this with an image so radical and urgent that its composition forced him to abandon the central perspective field that had determined painting since the Renaissance, Munch became a 20th-century pioneer.

As it was for Picasso and “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”, an encounter with a primitive art work shaped Munch’s ground-breaking image: he appropriated the hollow eyes, gaping mouth, skull-head and compressed, frightened gait of his shrieking figure from an Inca mummy buried in a jar in a foetal position. But “The Scream” is revolutionary too because Munch does not show war, crucifixion or any of the other physical torments that until then had characterised depictions of suffering: this is modern man confronting himself, and it announced Munch as the first artist whose relentless, conscious subject was his own psyche.

“My art is rooted in a single reflection: why am I not as others are? Why was there a curse on my cradle? Why did I come into the world without any choice?” Munch stated. A grim childhood – his mother died in 1868, followed by his beloved sister in 1877 – assured a pessimistic temperament. It was the graphic vitality of his woodcuts and prints, made in Berlin in the 1890s, that transformed his symbolist beginnings into a new, directly expressive language. Then, just as he was hailed in Berlin as the spiritual father of expressionism, he had a nervous breakdown, returned home in 1908, and never left Norway again. “For several years I was almost mad,” he would explain. “You know my picture, ‘The Scream’? Nature was screaming in my blood ... After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”

At his death, he was little-known outside Germany and Scandinavia. For decades after, he was marginalised as a Nordic neurotic in histories of modernism. But in the 21st century, his reputation is transforming: the Royal Academy’s Edvard Munch: By Himself (2005) revealed late self-portraits in loose, liberated mid-century style; Chicago’s Becoming Edvard Munch in 2009 proposed him as a sophisticated manipulator of his madman persona, and Tate Modern’s forthcoming summer show argues for a multimedia artist engaged with photography and film.

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s chief visual art critic.

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