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Doesn’t it just? A pastel version of The Scream, or Skrik in Nowegian, sells for $120m at Sotheby’s in New York. I doubt Edvard Munch would’ve been impressed, though he might have churned out a few more versions. Just for the hell of it.
He was born to a very religious family, who believed in social justice. His father was a dedicated doctor, devoting much of his life to treating the poor at a time when Oslo was full of them.
My fascination for The Scream dates back to my childhood when I first visited Oslo’s Munch Museum. I was staying quite near in my aunt and uncle’s flat where my mother lived as a young woman. Many years later in 2002 The Independent published an article of mine on Munch entitled The Agony and The Ecstasy. A few years latermy cousin’s son, Hans-Martin Frydenberg Flaatten wrote a book on Munch.
Soloppgang i Kragerø was published in Norwegian in 2009. In the late 1990’s Hans-Martin and I did some research on Munch together. We visited Munch’s country studio at Kragerø in Telemark. A humble wood cabin overlooking the fjord, it has been left much as it was in Munch’s time. The bottles of pills and potions he took – he is recorded as being a hypochondriac – are still there. His bed all made and ready to jump into. Munch used to leave his paintings out in the harsh Norwegain climate. He liked the weathered effect it gave. I don’t suppose the new owner of The Scream is going to leave it out on the lawn overnight. Go on, I dare you.
Since that first visit I have seen The Scream many times. One waxed crayon and tempera on cardboard version hangs in Oslo’s Nasjonalgalleriet (National Gallery), another hangs in the Munch Museum. Munch also made lithographic prints of the same subject. Like much of Munch’s work it is a very startling, almost painful, image that seems to sum up the isolation of modern life, despite having been conceived at the end of the 19th century.
How does a painting become worth so much? You can bet your bottom dollar some unbelievably lucky lottery winner didn’t blow the lot on it.
It seems incredible that Munch’s iconic images were executed in crayon on cardboard. But then he didn’t have much money at the time. In The Guardian article I linked to, the journalist tells us there were only four. Only four? I don’t remember there being only four Mona Lisas. Or only four Venus de Milos.
The idea for The Scream came after a drinking bout when he was walking in Ekeberg on the east side of Oslofjord above the city. He wrote about it in his diary.
I was walking along a path with two friends,
The sun set,
I felt a deep sadness
Suddenly the sky turned blood-red,
I stopped and leant against the railing, deathly tired,
And saw the flaming clouds as blood over the blue-black fjord and town
My friends walked on,
I stood there trembling with angst
And I sensed a loud, unending scream pierce nature.
Having suffered more than a few heavy nights on the jolly juice myself I know how he mut have felt.
But why would any sane or sober person want to pay one hundred and twenty million dollars for a crayon drawing of a bald man with a hangover on a piece of cardboard ? Little wonder the buyer wished to remain anonymous.
But there is a very simple reason why such paintings become worth so much, and it is based on greed rather than artistic merit. The very wealthy no longer have any confidence in money. They’re trying to get rid of it like there’s no tomorrow. And one way of doing it is to invest in art and antiques. Like gold and diamonds, art and antiques have rarity value. They tell other obscenely wealthy people just how much loot you’ve got. And as the value of cash plummets, the value of luxury items rockets.
The problem for we plebs is the high prices they fetch drain money out of our real economy. Instead of investing in factories, jobs, research and design the rich like to use their cash to invest in chateaux, Rolls Royces, diamond necklaces and valuable paintings. Things from which hardly anybody else derives any benefit, apart from other very rich people. They will spend fortunes on haute couture, fine old wines, antique furniture and holiday homes in exotic places, but they don’t like paying wages or taxes. So what does a billionaire banker, aristocrat, or drug dealer do with all his cash when he’s not stashing it away in a Swiss bank vault, or hiding it away from the tax authorities on some tax-haven island paradise? He spends a few million on a painting, like they always do in a crisis. Your money might be worth jack-shit, but that’s hardly worth bothering about, as you’ve got so little. He’s got billions to take care of when the big crash comes.
And that’s why paintings can fetch such ridiculous prices. Let’s face it, it’s got nothing to do with art. Or artists. Not living ones, anyhow. Well, not dead ones either, but you get my drift. They won’t see one cent of the one hundred and twenty million dollars. Munch died in 1944, and the painting past out of his hands long before that. We all know what happened to Van Gogh. Despite his paintings also making tens millions for galleries, auction houses, speculators, and financiers nowadays, he died in poverty, having never sold a painting in his entire life. Exactly the same paintings weren’t worth a bean while he lived. So what’s changed? His paintings haven’t. Just our perceptions of them. Or rather, the perceptions of the rich, who wouldn’t know a masterpiece without a huge price tag telling them it was. Doesn’t it make you want to scream?
Another cultural walk round Oslo: In the steps of Knut Hamsun
Update July 12th 2012: The Scream’s buyer named In an article by The Guardian’s Dave Batty the buyer of The Scream is named.
Copyright© 2012 Bryan Hemming Conil
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