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A cliche with a price tag

The hysteria around the sale of The Scream is as powerful as the painting itself.

india Updated: Apr 15, 2012 20:48 IST

A woman of maybe 75 enters the lobby of Sotheby’s and says, with some flourish, “I want to see the Scream. Edvard Munch’s The Scream!” She looks as though she’s expecting someone to stop her. But there is just a flight of stairs and 26 security guards between her and this work of art. Nothing will stop her.

There are four copies, two paintings and two pastels, and that is not counting the trillions of posters on students’ walls, yawning back decades, touching every adolescence in living memory and beyond, which has ever been touched by the thought, “see that picture? That’s me, that is.”

One painting and one pastel are in the Munch museum in Oslo, and one painting is in Norway National Gallery in the same city. Having had two of them stolen, blessedly recovered, in 1994 and 2004, Norway will never lend them. But there is also this fourth version, painted third chronologically, which will be sold on May 2.

“I’ve been coming here for donkey’s years,” said a woman who wished to remain anonymous, “and I’ve never been through two security gates. I mean, that Matisse is worth £30m — the reserve price is below it, as you know — and there’s no security round that.” She leans in: “I think there’s an element of marketing. Which is a little bit silly, because we all know who’s going to buy it anyway.”

Approaching the work has the kind of ceremony you’d imagine they’d put on for the pope, or a dictator. You go through the security, the queue control, past the Miró, and there you are, in a totally dark room, this iconic creation glowing from the darkness as if possessed by a mystical force.

Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s head of impressionist and modern art, remarks, “It’s so well known, so familiar; everybody’s seen the pastiches, the parodies, the toys, the cartoons. You might think it would lose its power, but it doesn’t. When you look at the Mona Lisa, it looks exactly as you’d expect it to look. This is quite different.”

Masterpieces as important as this one come along very rarely. The auction house has been in contact with the seller for a number of years, waiting for the market to be at its most advantageous point.

Shaw tells me that this version is the “most immediate, it has the most visceral impact of the four, those vibrant colours, the blaring reds and yellows”. Childishly, I ask him which is his favourite, and he says, “Munch painted that prose poem on this one [the sun was setting — suddenly the sky turned blood red… and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature]. And signed it EM on the frame. But in my job, whether I like it or not is neither here nor there. I am simply here to ask, ‘who will like this picture, how much will they be willing to pay for it and why?’”

Before I saw it, I couldn’t believe that anybody would spend £50m or, for that matter, £5m or £500m on a picture that is such a global cliche. And now I’ve seen it, it seems strange and sad that it would be sold at all. But I don’t know if that’s the piece itself casting a spell, or just the enormity of the ritual.