"The rich man who gives, steals twice over. First he steals the money and then the hearts of men"
- Edward Munch
Many may be struggling to make ends meet in these times of economic instability but some deserving few seem to be making the most out of meritocracy. One amongst them must have been the anonymous phone bidder who brought Edward Munch's The Scream home for a mere $119.9m (£74), breaking a new record for the work of art in the age of financial speculation. As inexorable as the implementation of austerity measures, the auctioneer's gavel echoed its stern verdict in a decompression chamber at Sothetby's New York where the abstraction of financial capital sublimates into art. After only 12 minutes of generous bidding the one vacant copy in four existing versions was sold to the mysterious bidder.
Given the considerable amount of money it took, the shocked expression camping on Munch's famous canvas is very much justified. More than 100 years separate us from this disquieting oil-painting but it somehow feels strikingly contemporary. The Scream's inquietude had foresaw the 20th century and its impending interrogatives; retrospectively it constitutes a fitting commentary on the atrocities and shocking developments the last century brought about. But whilst the anxious expression emanating from the emaciated face feels like a reaction to an intangible malaise, observed today, The Scream holds up a mirror to our existential insecurity. Not the externalisation of some inner demon but the realistic depiction of an age of uncertainty, its fears, paranoia and extreme anxiety.
The very landscape surrounding the desperate figure staring into an anguished unknown, with its spasmodic lines no longer describing reality, conveys a scenario of decaying certainties and blurring definitions that feels quite familiar. A world of individualized fear and privatized stress where human relations are two fading figures in the background, seemingly disinterested in their fellow's state. A haggard man, marching under the burden of a destructed body whose sinuous lines leak out onto the landscape, holding his head in horror as if trying not to hear the deafening noise of collapse.
In spite of the mass-mediated efforts to maintain a respectable semblance, outside of that auction room where The Scream was neutralised, the world we inhabit boasts remarkable similarities with Munch's vision. We too are faced with the fear of constant precariousness, unable to recognize what used to be a familiar landscape in which old certainties (Health, Education and Employment) are now lost in the livid light of social incertitude.
Even Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art in New York admitted: "The Scream arguably embodies even greater power today than when it was conceived."
Interestingly enough, the iconic painting has always been borrowed by popular culture for parodist purposes, from the film series to The Simpson passing by Home Alone's famous poster, its deadly anguish has been culturally exorcised.
My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind shivering with fear. said Munch recollecting the moment that inspired his painting, yet what is striking is that the mental pain is not relegated to the central figure but exudes from every inch of the canvas. His friends might have been walking away but they too were part of this nightmarish sunset, a dawning of rationality before a night of unreason.
This featureless, hence universal figure haunts like a spectral premonition a world plagued by the absence of a reassuring future, just like the one this man seems to be looking at.