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.”
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