Everybody is familiar with The Scream even if they’ve never set foot inside an art museum in their life. It’s a rare example of artwork that has the same level of cultural cachet as The Last Supper or The Starry Night, and yet this eerie portrait is unlike any other piece of fine art.
The painting so perfectly captures the essence of horror and despair that critics have debated its exact meaning for decades. But to properly understand The Scream, we need to take a glimpse into the life of its troubled creator. He poured out his heart and soul onto that canvas, which continues to have a profound impact on our world long after the artist drew his last breath.
Of course, breath wasn’t the only thing this man drew. The Scream, a paint and pastel composition from 1893, is instantly recognizable, though most casual art aficionados don’t grasp the artist’s true intentions. Most don’t even know his name.
Edvard Munch / Wikimedia Commons
Edvard Munch emerged as one of the most daringly talented Expressionists the world had ever seen. The Norwegian scraped the darkest depths of his psyche and emotions for inspiration, and he had no shortage of material.
His family life was enveloped in tragedy. Tuberculosis took the lives of Edvard’s mother and his sister Johanne Sophie, causing the boy to become increasingly withdrawn. He had his drawings to comfort him, but little else brightened Munch’s world.
His father was a callous religious fanatic. Munch even reflected, “From him I inherited the seeds of madness.” And that was no exaggeration, as Edvard battled depression while one of his sisters entered a mental asylum.
Fortunately, he escaped his father’s clutches and became a celebrated international artist. Pushing the boundaries of expression and experimentation, Munch went where no other painters dared. It was clear that his deep-rooted trauma influenced his subject matter.
One of his most celebrated works, for example, is The Sick Child. It clearly references the terminal illness of his beloved sister and the family’s struggle to cope. So is The Scream another attempt for Munch to process this tragedy?
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Well, the answer isn’t so simple. For starters, The Scream wasn’t a singular work as much as it was a constantly evolving series. Munch produced four different versions of the scene, in addition to a lithograph copy — all of which started out with a different title.
Originally, he called his pieces The Scream of Nature. During a hike in 1892, the artist was struck by a blood red sunset, likely intensified by the Krakatoa eruption halfway across the world. To Munch, it seemed like an epic communication of the Earth’s pain.
Ricardo Cuppini / Flickr
Art historians also argue that Munch was inspired by a visit to a Paris museum. In his diary, he made note of a Peruvian mummy in a glass case, with its face forever twisted into an expression of horror.
Sam Scholes / Flickr
Then again, it could be metaphorical. Munch said The Scream was “the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self,” and it depicts a despairing soul unable to go on with life and perhaps about to jump off of a bridge. But one thing was clear.
The Scream became an undeniable success. Speaking volumes to both the expert and the layman, Munch’s masterpiece spread like wildfire during the 20th century. Everyone had something to say about it.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Vendors printed t-shirts with the image emblazoned on the front. Cartoons parodied the gaping facial expression. Andy Warhol added splashes of color to Munch’s versions and displayed them worldwide. The painting also inspired a classic film.
In Scream, Wes Craven modeled the mask of the killer — nicknamed Ghostface — on Munch’s iconic work. The painting was a cash cow for many artists. But such valuable artwork also attracted seedier characters.
In 1994, The Scream was stifled. When Norway turned all its attention to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, a group of criminals snuck inside Oslo’s National Gallery in the dead of night.
They shocked the world by stealing one of Munch’s masterworks. To brag about how effortless the heist was, the thieves left a note that read, “Thanks for the poor security.” Norwegian authorities were outraged.
Police caught the criminals and returned the artwork weeks later, but even then, no copy of The Scream was safe. In 2006, armed men stormed into another gallery and snatched a copy off the wall. A surprising ally offered to help with the recovery.
Mars, Inc. somehow decided it would be good promotion to offer a reward. Anyone who found The Scream would earn a grand prize of 2.2 million M&M candies. The company’s phones rang almost nonstop.
Chattanooga Free Times Press
Astonishingly, one of the criminals contacted Mars with the information! He’d already been caught and was trying to land the candy stash as part of his plea deal. But rather than showering a thief in chocolate, the company gave the prize to Norwegian police.
Mars, Inc. / YouTube
With so many attempts to wrest the painting away from the proper owners, gambling dens have even placed bets on the next time that The Scream will be stolen. Many predicted another heist in 2012, as the masterpiece approached a major event.
A copy of The Scream racked up a record-setting price tag of $120 million at a Sotheby’s auction. That’s enough to make anyone scream. A few years later, the auction house witnessed an even more shocking sale.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
On October 5th, 2018, Sotheby’s in London was busy preparing for an auction. This itself was nothing remarkable. After all, that was their business. But the auction that day was special…
Sotheby’s are the experts when it comes to selling priceless works of art. They have been doing it for hundreds of years, but this day was going to be particularly special and the beginning of a new chapter.
They were auctioning off a rare piece by today’s most relevant street artist: Banksy. This is one artist who probably never expected to find his work being sold off to a wealthy bidder at a private auction house.
Since the 1990s, he has made a name for himself with works that subvert artistic conventions and skewer various aspects of society. Chances are you’ve seen his work already even if you don’t know it.
Flickr / Ganzelka
Almost nobody knows who Banksy is. His real identity is a carefully guarded secret that likely will never come to light. You would think that would be something that would hamper his rising celebrity, but that’s not the case.
And even though his anonymity prevents him from doing interviews or having a social media presence, it certainly adds to his allure. Countless articles have been written about him, and even a documentary was about his work.
Many theorists name Bristol artist Robin Cunningham as the likeliest candidate for Banksy, but all the dots still don’t connect. It’s quite possible, in fact, that ‘Banksy’ may be multiple people collaborating under a single name.
Banksy is most famous for his graffiti — a copy of which was going on sale at Sotheby’s. His clever pieces go far beyond tagging his name on a brick wall. Instead, they have a biting visual message.
Flickr / Laura Munday
His minimalist works often blend in seamlessly with the urban landscape. In fact, that’s what makes them so darn compelling. They stop you in your tracks and make you look twice.
Banksy has the unique ability to transform any ordinary object into politically charged art. Sometimes he accomplishes this feat with just a few words…
So it’s no surprise that so many collectors were chomping at the bit to buy their very own Banksy. They hungrily eyed the prize as the bids climbed up to one million dollars and beyond.
These high rollers were competing to get their hands on one of Banksy’s most famous murals, Balloon Girl. Many critics consider it to be among the greatest works of art in the United Kingdom.
But this version of Balloon Girl had one feature that the original lacked. Inside the frame, Banksy secretly lined the bottom of the painting with motorized blades. What was he planning?
Well, the exact instant the painting sold — with a final price tag of $1.4 million — the booby-trapped frame shredded the painting to pieces. Nobody in attendance could wrap their minds around what had just occurred. What kind of artist would destroy his own work?
Instagram / Banksy
Just because the painting is in tatters, however, doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Like so many other famous works of art, a little bit of damage might not be as damaging to the value as you might think!
Art seller Steve Lazarides, one of the few individuals in Banksy’s inner circle, suggested that the shredded version of Balloon Girl may even be worth more than the original.
The Art Newspaper
Though some members of the art community criticized the move as a cruel prank, others are now calling it one of Banksy’s greatest demonstrations ever. Perhaps only one other stunt could rival its originality and shock value…
Banksy made headlines around the world in 2015 by curating the Dismaland installation. The site utilized dozens of pieces to construct a ‘sinister twist’ on the Disney franchise and theme parks in general.
Dismaland welcomed over 150,000 in its temporary run. Guests could enjoy — or at least tolerate — attractions such as a rundown princess castle, a museum of dangerous objects, and purposely unfair games like ‘topple the anvil with a ping pong ball.’
It’s clear that when it comes to art Banksy isn’t content to let the status quo stand. From bizarre theme parks staffed by strange characters like the ones below to destroying his own art, he’s always looking to up the ante.