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Friday, May 24, 2013

The Most Expensive Painting Ever Sold

The Scream, 1895, Edvard Munch.
Actually, it's not a painting in oils, but done in pastels.
It happened just two days ago, Wednesday, May 21, 2013 at Sotheby's in New York. The bidding started at $40-million. It took all of twelve tense minutes The most expensive painting in the world sold at auction for $119,992,500. Who was the artist? Well, it wasn't Leonardo, not Monet, not Rembrandt, not Cezanne, not Picasso, not...well, a lot of other artists you might expect. Quite possibly it's an artist you've never heard of--the Norwegian painter named Edvard Munch. Ironically, the work wasn't even a one-of-a-kind, but one of four versions the artist painted of The Scream (above) in 1895. This one was the last one still in private hands. The other three are safely lodged in Norwegian art museums.

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932,
Pablo Picasso, the second most
expensive painting ever.
The buyer is, not surprisingly, anonymous. When you have that kind of money hanging on your living room wall, you don't go around broadcasting it. In fact, two other versions of The Scream have previously been stolen, in 1994 and 2006. The seller was a Norwegian businessman named Petter Olsen, whose father had been a friend of the painter. The previous record price for a work of art was $106.5 million for Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (right).

What is it about Munch and his screaming image that so resonates with art buyers and art thieves alike? I've previously written on Munch (12-23-10) so there's no need to go into a long dissertation as to his lifetime and career. Suffice to say the man was no stranger to death and various emotional disorders. Today's critics cite the paintings as icons of our modern day, high-anxiety, high-stress human existence. Be that as it may, they certainly are icons, probably one of the most satirized works of art today, right up there with the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper. (Why do we pick on Leonardo so much?)

The Scream, 1895, Edvard Munch.
The other three versions. Compare them with the one at top.
Why are there four of them? If your paintings were selling for almost $120-million apiece, how many would YOU paint? Seriously, Munch's paintings were hardly selling at all in 1895. Much more likely, the artist found an image that fascinated him and was experimenting. Perhaps each was a separate emotional statement, perhaps they were a series of trial works leading up to a final version (the exact order in which they were done is unknown). If critics today love (or at least, respect) Munch's screaming images so much, the critics in Munch's time hated them. Of course they hated most Postimpressionist works so there's no hint there as to why the painting seems to have such a grip on our art psyches. The colors are garish (appropriately so, I guess). The face is (or used to be, anyway) horrifying. Despite the fact The Scream, in all four of its permutations, has become trite, hackneyed, and kitsch, there is a primeval emotional identification with the image Munch heaves at us that is such a hard-wired part of all our human existence as to be universally understood and feared. We've all had days when we just want to SCREAM!!


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