What A Scream

by Christine Adams Beckett

Over breakfast this morning, our family speculated about who or whom bought Edvard Munch’s The Scream for a record breaking $119,922,500 at Sotheby’s in Manhattan, the most expensive piece of art ever bought at auction.  The winning bidder was on the telephone, prepared to shell out an enormous sum for this painting in the comfort of his or her anonymity.  Bill Gates, a museum, the government of Qatar, a low key European billionaire were amongst the guesses, ours and the press’s.  Donald Marron, the president of the Museum of Modern Art – New York reportedly sprung up in his chair when the gavel fell, and very publicly made his opinion known: it should go to an institution.

“It’s worth every penny the collector paid,” said Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer.  He also reportedly professed his love to a Sotheby’s employee who convinced her client to stay in the race, pushing the bidding to over $100 million.  The 99%ers were outside protesting in good force too.  Although many art market experts think that a sale of this nature — a large sum for an iconic piece — is not a good judge of the art market, one can only speculate what it means that unGodly sums are being shelled out at Sotheby’s while the rest of the world is wondering if their house is worth what it was 10 years ago in today’s real estate market.

Our real estate agent told us our house was worth every penny we paid for it too, albeit six years ago. There were five other families wanting to buy the same house, and they put their own offers in a sealed envelope as we did.  Ours just happened to beat theirs by a hair’s breadth.   Times were different then: a  market was what the market bore.  It won’t bear much now.  Hindsight is always very clear; but we’re in a home we like, in a community that we love and we’re trying not to lose sleep over it.

But I do vividly recall the nagging feeling of terror I felt after signing the purchase agreement, that frankly hits my stomach after any large purchase.  It must be my New England frugal genes, but I feel the same way when buying dress shoes, winter coats and fixings for a lavish holiday meal.  I wonder if our Sotheby’s patron is feeling a similar buyers remorse to which I always fall victim.  I wouldn’t go so far to say that I feel like Edvard Munch witnessing that blood red sunset over the water in Oslo, overcome with fear.  I won’t let myself become a victim of hyperbole.

My family’s personal language  etymology can be linked to The Scream: there’s no Ben & Jerry’s left in the freezer: grasp your face and scream à la Munch.  The recyclables weren’t put on the curb: go back to Oslo and witness red sunset.  When the baby wakes too early from her nap, leaving tasks unfinished: put on Edvard’s shoes and have a barbaric wallop.  I know we have lots of company in our gag, as the image has been reproduced so much as to become less of the symbol of hopelessness and more of one for mimicry.   Homer Simpson has even been depicted as the screamer, the eight year-old boy who was Home Alone in the movie of the same name grasped his cheeks and yelled in the same manner.  Because it’s been reproduced so much, I agree with Marron: it should go to an institution to exemplify a slice of popular culture that has become so iconic that no one will believe it’s the real thing hanging over anyone’s mantle.

There was a poem written by Munch included on this 1895 version of The Scream (there are four in total).  Written on the frame is: 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.”

I am curious to know who would want that hanging over the aforementioned mantle, especially if that mantle isn’t worth what it was 5 years ago.