Saturday, May 5, 2012

The $cream


"One of the art world's most recognisable images - Edvard Munch's The Scream has been sold for a record $US119,922,500 ($A116.59 million) at auction in New York City. The 1895 artwork - a modern symbol of human anxiety - was sold at Sotheby's. The price includes the buyer's premium.

The image of a man holding his head and screaming under a streaked, blood-red sky is one of four versions by the Norwegian expressionist painter. The auctioned piece at Sotheby's is the only one left in private hands.

The previous record for an artwork sold at auction was $106.5 million for Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust, sold by Christie's in 2010."
The above news item brought to mind something that I had been told some time back by Byter Per (pronounced “Peer”) when I had used the image to head a post.  Per told me that Munch had painted The Scream in Norway when the volcanic eruption of Krakatoa had sent ash and tidal waves around the world, as well as turning the sky blood red.

The painting:

Edvard Munch (no relation to the detective with the big ears in Law & Order: SVU) painted a number of versions of The Scream between 1893 and 1910. These range from oils to pastels and are now held by various galleries. 

The painting shows an agonised figure in front of a blood red sky. In the background is a bay in Oslo, Norway known as the Oslofjord, viewed from a hill in the neighbourhood known as Ekeberg.

The original German title given to the work by Munch was Der Schrei der Natur which translates to The Scream of Nature. Occasionally, the painting has been called The Cry.

It has been suggested that the figure and the environment is a depiction of depersonalisation disorder, a condition in which the individual suffers from feelings of distortion of self and the physical environment around the person.

In popular culture:

The Scream has been the inspiration for numerous images and designs:

The Simpsons

Scream, the movie

Home Alone

Andy Warhol made a series of silk screen prints of The Scream


The inspiration for The Scream is not definitively known.

Munch wrote in his diary in 1892:
"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."

These words were hand-painted by Munch in poem form on the frame of the 1895 version of the painting.

Various hypotheses have been put forward as to the inspiration for the work and the figure it depicts.

There is the one already mentioned, that the red sky was a result of the 1883 volcanic eruption of Krakatoa, which caused red skies in much of the eastern Unites States and most of Europe and Asia from November 1883 to February 1884.

Another explanation is that inspiration came from a slaughterhouse and a mental hospital, then referred to as a ”madhouse”, both located close to where the work was painted.

At the time that Munch painted The Scream, his sister Laura Catherine was interned in the mental hospital at the foot of the hill from which the scene is depicted. His sister was suffering from manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder.

In 1978 Robert Rosenblum, an expert in Munch study, put forward the theory that the figure depicted in The Scream was inspired by a Peruvian mummy that Munch may have seen at the 1889 Paris Exposition. It is depicted in the following sketch:

The mummy was crouched in a foetal position with its hands alongside its face. The same mummy was the inspiration for the crouched figure in Gaugin’s Human Misery (Grape Harvest at Arles):

and for the seated figure at left in Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

In 2004 an Italian anthropologist suggested that an Inca mummy in Florence’s Museum of Natural History may have been the model for the figure in the painting. There is a striking similarity:

 In the end it doesn't really matter, but it is of interest.

 “Whistler’s Mother, Wood’s American Gothic, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Edvard Munch’s The Scream have all achieved something that most paintings—regardless of their art historical importance, beauty, or monetary value—have not: they communicate a specific meaning almost immediately to almost every viewer. These few works have successfully made the transition from the elite realm of the museum visitor to the enormous venue of popular culture."

 - Martha Tedeschi, author

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