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'Scream' Still Echoes After More Than A Century

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It's perhaps the most reproduced piece of art ever created. It has adorned key chains and coffee mugs, and the cover of Time magazine. Andy Warhol used it, and now one of the four versions of The Scream, Edvard Munch's iconic work — the only one outside Norway — is coming up for auction at Sotheby's in New York. Sale estimates are as high as $80 million.

When I think of The Scream, it takes me back to the 1960s and the Vietnam War. The image was everywhere on T-shirts and posters; it seemed to be both a personal scream from the abyss and a symbol of that particular horror. Created in the 1890s, it seemed to portend two world wars and the Holocaust. Simon Shaw, head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby's in New York, says it's been a talisman in times of crisis that "crystallizes our fears and anxieties. In recent times, the financial crisis and the global turbulence, we have seen more and more use of The Scream since 2007 than ever before," he says.

Munch and other painters in the Expressionist movement wanted to express a new internal, psychological form of reality. Art historian and psychoanalyst Laurie Wilson says the image touches on something primitive within all of us, because we were all once young and helpless like the hairless creature in the picture, wordless and afraid. She says Munch managed to convey something all human beings have felt at some time: "I am overwhelmed. I am helpless. There is nothing I can do and when I try to convey it, in some way, whether I am screaming or expressing some of what nature is screaming at me, other people ignore it."

Munch captured something real, says Ana Mozol, a Jungian analyst in Vancouver, British Columbia. She dreamed on the image and found it deeply disturbing — "Like a dark truth," she says. "In Jungian psychology we speak of the personal shadow and the collective shadow. I think in a moment like that, the way I was seeing it, was a seeing through to the collective shadow."

Munch himself described The Scream as an image for a godless age. The picture at Sotheby's is pastel on board, the most brightly colored of the four versions Munch created. It's placed as if in a chapel, and Shaw says Munch hoped people would take their hats off in front of it. He recalls a colleague who described it as "the painting that launched a thousand therapists, because it does somehow capture that inward-looking angst that we all have. We can all sympathize somehow; we can all empathize with this image in our different ways."

Erzsi Karkus and Mitch Cheney certainly did. Karkus is a lawyer and Cheney is a geologist, and they came to Sotheby's to see the work in person. "What I love about it," says Karkus, "is the sky. The reds and the oranges. It is a very personal gut reaction that I have."

"You can't even tell what sex the person is, it is just pure emotion," adds Cheney. "It transcends language, culture; it hits us right in our soul."

"I doubt I am only husband who has ever sent the image of The Scream in the middle of the day because the balance has tipped to the unmanageable," says Phillip Freeman, a psychiatrist practicing in the Boston area. He says there is evidence that our reaction to the painting has changed over time. Most of our screams are private now — we're upset at the computer breakdown, at the rigid bureaucrat. "Instead of being a primal scream," he adds, "it is more a Jack Benny take to a forgetful God."

Once full of dread, the image becomes something more ironic. Or even, by transferring the image to a consumer item, we manage the unmanageable, say analysts Wilson and Mozol. "It's only a coffee cup," says Wilson. "It's almost like, if it is out there it is not in here," says Mozol. "And if we can see the projection of it mirrored in the outer world somehow we don't have to do the difficult work of going into the place within our own psyche where that image lives."

But Munch also spoke about The Scream as something bigger than humanity. Mozol points to the myth of the rape of Persephone, whose abduction by the god of the underworld created winter. "This is the scream that went under and wasn't heard," she says. "And I think that that can also be amplified to the scream of nature or the scream of the earth."

In blood red paint on the front of the original frame that holds this version of The Scream, Munch wrote the poem that inspired the image.

I was walking along the road with two friends. The Sun was setting —
The Sky turned a bloody red
And I felt a whiff of Melancholy — I stood
Still, deathly tired — over the blue-black
Fjord and City hung Blood and Tongues of Fire
My Friends walked on — I remained behind
-- shivering with Anxiety. I felt the great Scream in Nature.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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