“The Scream” is one of the most tortured and most recognizable images in history. And now, after a record Sotheby’s auction, it’s one of the most expensive: The pastel, one of four versions of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch’s painting, sold for $119.9 million to an anonymous bidder at auction Wednesday night in New York.
After art-watchers picked their jaws up off the floor after hearing the price, they began collecting their thoughts about “The Scream.” It’s an image so simple — an angry sky, a dark bridge, a tortured figure — but humanity’s pain is reflected in its anonymous visage. That’s why “The Scream” is one of the most reproduced artworks ever created, with its terrified face appearing in comedy and horror movies, on posters in college dorm rooms — reproductions that have no less power than the original image. It’s also been the target of some of the most high-profile cases of art theft in history. And because of these trying economic times, the image seems to resonate more than ever — while the pastel was at auction, striking Sotheby’s art handlers and Occupy Wall Street protesters picketed outside with signs that pictured “The Scream.”
The image, created more than a century ago, continues to captivate. Here’s how people have described it:
• “[It’s] the painting that launched a thousand therapists, because it does somehow capture that inward-looking angst that we all have. We can all sympathize somehow; we can all empathize with this image in our different ways.” — Simon Shaw, head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby's, to NPR
• “The person who has never come close to the degree of extremity depicted in ‘The Scream’ is, we tend to feel, a rather superficial and spiritually impoverished human being.” — Mark Hudson, the Telegraph
• “The scream is more than a painting, it’s a symbol of psychology as it anticipates the 20th-century traumas of mankind.” — Ivor Braka, London art dealer, to the New York Times.
• “’The Scream’ is an iconic rendering in the modern history of radical Expressionist art — a once-freakish, now conventional stylistic language whose form does not arise from an effort to depict external reality but from the gurgling depths of otherwise inchoate inner experience.” — Christopher Knight, the LA Times
But there is perhaps no better description that Munch’s original one. Part of the reason the pastel was so valuable was because it contained the artist’s poetry about the image, hand-written within the frame:
"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.”