Munch: More than just a (not very) pretty face
Art Newspaper. June 1, 2012. Issue 236.
The sales of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1895, for a record-breaking $119.9. m at Sotheby’s New York in May has intensified interest in the work of the gloomy Norwegian painter. who is best known for just a few, but striking, images.
Munch was a prolific artist and an excellent print-maker, and he returned to a few subjects over and over again. There are four versions of The Scream, painted between 1893 and 1910, four of The Vampire (1893-94), 12 paintings with the theme of Girls on a Bridge and five of the Madonna.
On his death, Munch left 1,000 paintings and thousands of prints and watercolours to the city of Oslo, which built the Munch Museum at T yen. Museums outside Norway also have several of his works, meaning that much of Munch‘s oeuvre is already off the market, particularly paintings. However, on the back of The Scream, another five paintings were consigned to Sotheby’s May sale. One failed to find a buyer-the 1917 Summer Night, chasing $2.5m to $3.5m-and the others all sold under estimate.
“There is a huge difference in price between the few iconic images and the rest of his work,” says David Nash of Mitchell-Innes and Nash. “There has been a shortage of Munchs on the market for as long as I can remember,” he says (Nash previously worked at Sotheby’s).
When a major painting appears, it does very well. Before The Scream, a 1894 Vampire held the world record after selling at Sotheby’s for just over $38m. The same Girls on a Bridge (1902) sold twice, once in 1998 for $7.7m and again in 2008 for $30.8m.
Most sought after are works from the 19th century, says Nash. “People pay more for the last decade.” By the second decade of the 20th century, Munch‘s work becomes less compelling. “He started recovering from his mental anguish, he started to get commissions from wealthy Norwegians and companies, he became very prolific,” says the prints and drawings dealer David Tunick.
“One could argue that he was a better print-maker than painter,” Tunick says, explaining that, as with Munch‘s paintings, there is a small group of images that attracts the most interest. These works include those mentioned above, as well as The Kiss, Moonlight, The Sick Child, Women on the Shore, Anxiety, Zum Walde (toward the forest) and The Lonely Ones. Vampire II, 1895-1902, a colour lithograph, sold for $2.1m at Grev Wedels in Norway in November 2007: the record auction price for any print is $5.1m for a Picasso (La femme qui pleure, 1937, Christie’s New York, November 2011). It is believed that a hand-painted print of The Scream has sold privately for more than that sum.
So who are the buyers? The Norwegians are keen collectors, perhaps obviously, but also Germans, who are attracted by the northern expressionism of the work. There is a strong market in America: the collector Steve Cohen has a version of Madonna, and the heating contracting mogul Nelson Blitz has a fine collection of Munch prints. Dealers also mention South America and Russia, although Nash says he has never sold to a Russian. As for the buyer of The Scream, so far, his or her identity, and even nationality, remains shrouded in mystery. – G.A.
image: Edvard Munch, Vampyr II (Vampire II), 1895-1902. Lithograph and woodcut, Composition: 15 1/8 x 21 3/4″ (38.4 x 55.3 cm); sheet (irreg.): 22 3/8 x 27 5/8″ (56.9 x 70.1 cm). Publisher: Edvard Munch, Berlin. Printer: M.W. Lassally, Berlin. Edition: 150-200 in several color variations.