“The Scream” by Edvard Munch broke the world record for priciest artwork sold at auction yesterday, fetching $119.9 million at Sotheby’s in New York City. The buyer’s name was not disclosed—rumors ran from an American dot-com entrepreneur to the Qatar royal family to overnight billionaires in China, Russia or Brazil. Munch’s painting is ranked in global polls as the second-most identifiable icon, after the“Mona Lisa” and before Che Guevara’s face. Art critics have made careers trying to solve its riddle: Is the central figure—a sexless, ageless homunculus-like figure—issuing the scream from the O of its open mouth or are its hands covering its ear to block out a scream coming from the nightmare landscape all around? What’s plain is that the image, conceived in 1893, uncannily anticipates the unprecedented horrors of the century to come—world wars, totalitarian regimes, genocides and nuclear bombs.
Based on the evidence of “The Scream” alone, it’s no surprise that Edvard Munch had "issues." He was born in Norway to a religious fanatic father and a mother who died when he was five. Schizophrenia ran in his family, and his beloved sister was confined to a public asylum, which Munch faithfully visited, taking note that across the street from the caged inmates was a slaughterhouse. The artist treated his own psychological agonies with massive quantities of alcohol and drugs, starting young and developing a series of addictions—to absinthe, tobacco and a growing pile of pills and powders like codeine, morphine and laudanum.
Munch was 27 when he painted his masterpiece, whose inspiration, he said, was a hallucinatory vision in which he saw in the setting sun “tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish fjord…I was shivering with fear. Then I head the enormous, infinite scream of nature.” (He produced four versions; yesterday's record-breaker is a pastel on board.) He hit bottom in 1908. Rich and famous by then, he was also having the delusions and delirium tremens of late-stage alcoholism. Almost miraculously, he finally checked his downward spiral by checking in to a fancy clinic where he detoxed by being locked in a room for eight days; he stayed at the rehab for two years, enjoying the treatment for his many chemical dependencies—abstinence, regular meals, fresh air, sun baths and mild electroshock. After his recovery, he remained clean and sober for the rest of his long and productive life, dying at 80 in 1944, with the death-obsessed, drug-addled work that would later fetch a fortune hidden from Norway’s Nazi occupiers, who had targeted it for the flames as “degenerate art.”