Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale
Edvard Munch in his Berlin studio, 1902 (photograph by Edvard Munch)
Thomas Olsen (1897 – 1969)
The Scream sold for $119,922,500 during the May 2012 auction
Edvard Munch (1863-1944)
Tempera and crayon on board
91 by 73.5 cm
Housed in the National Gallery of Norway
NEW YORK, 2 May 2012 – Auction history was made at Sotheby’s when Edvard Munch’s iconic masterpiece The Scream sold for $119,922,500 / £73,921,284 / €91,033,826 in New York, marking a new world record for any work of art at auction. The iconic work is one of the most instantly recognizable images in both art history and popular culture, perhaps secondly to the Mona Lisa. A group of at least eight bidders jumped into the competition, but it was a prolonged battle between two highly determined phone bidders that carried the final selling price to its historic level, after more than 12 minutes.
The version auctioned during the May 2012 sale dates from 1895, and is one of four versions of the composition and is distinguished in several remarkable ways: it is the most colorful and vibrant of the four; the only version whose original frame was hand-painted by the artist to include his poem detailing the work's inspiration; and the only version in which one of the two figures in the background turns to look outward onto the cityscape. This version was never before on public view in either the UK or US, except briefly in the National Gallery in Washington D.C. decades ago. Moreover, at the time of auction this work was the only version available in private hands - owned by Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen, whose father Thomas was a friend, neighbour and patron of Munch.
As the defining image of the Expressionist movement, The Scream stands as a pivotal work in the history of art. Munch created the image in the mid-1890s as the central element of his celebrated Frieze of Life series. The powerfully-rendered, blood-red sky presents the viewer with the reality of Munch's experience at the moment he is gripped by anxiety in the hills above Oslo. Like his Dutch contemporary Vincent van Gogh, Munch's desire was to paint a new form of reality rooted in psychological experience, rather than visual. It is this projection of Munch's mental state that was so artistically innovative – a landscape of the mind, whose impact is still felt in the art of today.
An icon of global visual culture, The Scream is instantly recognizable – from Beijing to Moscow to New York. Since its creation at the turn of the 20th century, the provocative work has only gained relevance and impact over time. The haunting composition stands as the visual embodiment of modern anxiety and existential dread, referenced by everyone from Andy Warhol to The Simpsons. Edvard Munch and The Scream have been the subject of countless books, scholarly articles, films and museum exhibitions.
The prime example of The Scream, worked in 1893 from tempera and crayon on board, is in the National Gallery of Norway; another pastel version from the same year is thought to be a preliminary sketch for the work, and is owned by the Munch Museum in Oslo; the version sold at Sotheby’s in May 2012 most closely follows the prime composition in the National Gallery; and a later version in tempera and oil on board, thought to be completed in 1910, is also in the collection of the Munch Museum. In addition, Munch created a lithograph of the image in 1895, which helped initiate the process of its mass proliferation.
The Scream was in the collection of the Olsen family for over 70 years. Thomas Olsen, scion of the great ship-owning dynasty, was a collector and supporter of Munch from the late 1920s. Olsen and the artist were neighbors at Hvitsten in Norway, where the young businessman's role grew from friend to patron and eventually to protector of his works.