Tom Sutcliffe: Reasons for sale? They're a scream

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I hope that nobody is labouring under the misapprehension that Petter Olsen is selling his copy of Munch's The Scream because he's got tired of it. "I have lived with this work all my life", he told a journalist when the sale was announced, "and its power and energy have only increased with time. Now however I feel the moment has come to offer the rest of the world a chance to own and appreciate this remarkable work". Nothing to do with the fact that Sotheby's have estimated that it might sell for more than $80m (£51m), then, just an awkward feeling that he has been hogging it and it's someone else's turn. "The rest of the world" did seem a little optimistic though. I'm not an expert when it comes to fine-art sales but I'd guess there aren't going to be a lot of telephone bids coming in from Somalia or North Korea. In this regard at least "the rest of the world" has a population of around 100, if that.

I also found myself wondering whether Sotheby's hadn't underestimated the likely sale price for the picture. They'd be inclined to do that anyway, of course, so that the resulting sale looks as if it triumphantly exceeded expectation. And the global economic downturn might have given them extra reason to be cautious about a stated ticket price. But they must surely suspect that this is no ordinary sale. Because, as one of their senior executives said, The Scream is, "one of the very few images which transcends art history and reaches a global consciousness". He's right surely. It's the Mona Lisa of angst and, like the Mona Lisa, one of those artworks that generates unofficial reproduction and pastiche. It has been converted into an inflatable punchbag, it has featured in The Simpsons and I once carved it onto a pumpkin for Hallowe'en, with a reasonable degree of success.

What made it pumpkin-able, I think, was directly connected to what has made it so famous, which is its simplicity as an image. It was already a cartoon, essentially – even before Munch produced a lithographic version. It's reducible to a few bold lines and yet still easily recognisable when it has been.

The conditions of its making, according to Munch's own account, were an overwhelming sense of cosmic dread. He'd been walking with friends near Oslo, he said, when the sky suddenly turned "blood red".

"I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire about the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on and I stood there trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature".

The picture he made in response to that occasion is, then, a cartoon of an appalling moment – and yet there's a tremor of comedy to it which adds to its memorability. It's not really surprising that it has been irreverently captioned more than once, because the sense of sudden realisation in the pose and expression seems to beg for an explanation – and we're inclined to joke our way out of the terror of that face. Think of Macaulay Culkin on the poster for Home Alone – hands clasped to his head and face aghast, and you get a better sense of how easily this image can be adapted to a comic end. Flip a smiley face to its reverse side and you might see something like The Scream.

At the same time, of course, it isn't comic at all, and speaks to something quite a lot of people – even the least neurasthenic – will have felt at one time or another, an impulse of panic that can arise quite spontaneously, blood-red skies or not. It was painted, as it happens, in 1893, six years before Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. But that's the world it belongs to – that landscape of the mind in which an ordinary human face can have a mask within it. It's not, frankly, an image you can imagine it would be very easy to live with on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps that's what Petter Olsen was trying to say when he noted that its "power and energy have only increased with time". He just can't stand it anymore and it's time for someone else to take on the burden.

'I'm in the theatre. They want me to be quiet...'

I think it's time for some enterprising mobile-phone company to sponsor a new theatre award. It wouldn't be for acting or set design or direction, or any of the standard categories that are already multiply covered by existing prizes like the Evening Standard Awards and the Oliviers. It would be for ingenuity and effectiveness in getting theatre audiences to turn their mobiles off before a performance. Already in with a strong chance this year is the opening moment of Josie Rourke's production of The Recruiting Officer, which marks the start of her incumbency at the Donmar Warehouse. The house band, all of whom act in the play as well, take up their positions and play a series of familiar ringtones on the fiddle and the fife, all the while looking daggers at the audience. It's not quite as confrontational as the opening of Moira Buffini's Welcome to Thebes a couple of years ago, when heavily armed African irregulars marched through the auditorium threatening dire consequences if the play was interrupted. "Any fucking disco tunes," one bellowed, "and I will not answer for my men." I don't suppose you could have embedded phone-advisories in every production – it might be a bit much to have Richard III beseeching us to switch "our stern alarums" to silent – but I'm sure there's plenty of scope for invention even so. And Othello would be a doddle: "Who's that which rings the bell?" bellows Iago at one point, "God's will, lieutenant, hold!/ You will be shamed for ever".

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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