Iconic ‘Scream’ painting to go on sale at last

Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’, which is expected to sell for $80 million this Spring.

Art lovers are set for the auction of the decade, after it was announced that Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ is to be put up for sale. This great portrait of despair could fetch up to $80 million.

Walking one evening by a fjord in his native Norway, Edvard Munch was suddenly seized by a terrible melancholy. ‘The sky turned blood red,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘My friends went on, but I stood there trembling with anxiety – and felt the infinite scream of nature.’

This moment of psychological horror inspired The Scream, an image that has seared itself onto the modern consciousness: a bald, gaping man covers his ears while all around him the lurid sea and sky contort.

Munch depicted this image in four paintings. Now one of them is up for sale – at an expected cost of $80 million. With a price tag like that, The Scream would rank among the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction – a list topped by Pablo Picasso‘s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust at $106 million.

In Munch’s own time, the emotional rawness of his masterpiece led reviewers to label him disturbed. But the painting soon became iconic as a representation of existential despair: psychologists and critics saw in The Scream an expression of profound internal angst. In 1961 Time magazine splashed it on the front cover of an issue dealing with the ‘guilt and anxiety’ they perceived in modern American society.

The Scream is not the only celebrated work to have plumbed the soul’s gloomiest depths. From Greek tragedy to Shakespeare’s Hamlet to the agonised howls of bands like Radiohead, we have always admired art that deals with strife and depression.

As poet Don Paterson has put it, ‘it seems that imaginations thrive on the darker stuff.’ Some have even questioned whether great art can ever be completely positive: ‘happiness,’ as the saying goes, ‘writes white.’ Nowadays The Scream is probably too familiar to cause much unease. It has been daubed on mugs, tea towels and movie posters, and parodied in cartoons like Charlie Brown and The Simpsons. Ultimately, though, these pastiches only confirm its symbolic power.

Scream of the crop

What can we get from a work of art, some ask, if all it shows us is misery? Life is tough enough as it is: we look to entertainment for escape from hardship and drudgery. Good art, they say, ought to make us happy – painting pictures about depression is self-indulgent and masochistic.

Fans of Edvard Munch disagree: art is not just entertainment, they say, but an exploration of the human soul. If artists ignore the pain and anxiety that we all sometimes feel, their work will be bland and untruthful. Art can and should help us to examine our innermost fears.

You Decide

  1. Is The Scream all it’s cracked up to be?
  2. Should good art make us happy?


  1. Sketch the design for a picture that deals with pain or depression.
  2. Write a totally happy poem – can you avoid being bland?

Some People Say...

“Happiness is boring.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What makes this painting such a big deal?
Apart from the enormous familiarity of the image, it is also an important work in art history: its attempts to deal with the artist’s subconscious emotions rather than convey a scene were revolutionary. This caused widespread shock, and influenced a whole movement known as ‘expressionism.’
Where can I see it?
This version is privately owned, and will probably remain so after its sale. But the other three are on public display in Oslo: two in the National Gallery and one in the Munch Museum.
Why The Scream?
Most people assume that the title refers to the expression on its subject’s face. But according to Munch, the ‘scream’ of the title is actually the disembodied sound of the character’s anxiety, which he is covering his ears to block out.

Word Watch

Edvard munch
Edvard Munch was a Norwegian painter whose radical style influenced much of 20th Century art. His grandiose themes included things like life, death, sex or melancholy, and his paintings were often disturbing. The pain they depict was probably caused partly by a difficult childhood: his mother died when he was very young, he suffered from tuberculosis and his family had a history of severe mental illness.
Pablo picasso
Spanish cubist painter Pablo Picasso is perhaps the most famous painter of the 20th Century. In his lifetime he was so successful that he could pay generously for meals at expensive restaurants by simply doodling on a napkin. He too often dealt with painful subjects: his best-known painting, Guernica, is a hellish representation of the horrors of war.
Influenced by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, many psychologists from the mid-20th Century onward believed that our minds are dominated by subconscious fears and scars from childhood experience. The Scream came to be viewed as a symbol of these suppressed anxieties.

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