Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Screaming at Sotheby's

Ventured up to Sotheby’s, New Bond St. to see a version of the ‘The Scream’ by Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944). The version consigned to the saleroom and up for auction next month in New York, is a pastel drawing by the artist. The image of ‘The Scream’ is reckoned to be only second to that of the Mona Lisa in terms of art awareness in the general public conscience, and is regarded as the archetypal image of the angst and anxiety of modern man.

‘The Scream’ is a series of four artworks created between 1893 and 1910. The version for sale is owned by Norwegian businessman Petter Olsen and was bought direct from the artist by his father. Munch described the inspiration for the image thus:

I was walking along a path with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above 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.

This is referenced in the poem written by Munch on the frame of the piece for sale at Sotheby’s, which says ‘the scream’ actually comes from Nature and not the figure in the artwork. This is certainly echoed in the Expressionist lines and colours used by Munch in each of the finished artworks.

Interestingly at the time that the image was created Munch’s sister was committed to a mental asylum and he himself feared he would go mad. Munch lived near the asylum and a local abattoir and could hear the screams of humans and animals from both of these places. 

I was amazed at the high levels of security employed by Sotheby’s to safeguard the treasure. It should come as no surprise really when sales estimates are as high as £50 million. You have to pass through not one but two airport style security scans and place all metal objects such as keys, phones, wallets etc. into a tray. Your body is then scanned with one of those wand thingumajiggies before you are corralled into a queue and made to wait,( for as long as twenty minutes, states the notice), before you are allowed into a darkened room to view the picture from a distance, behind a barrier. It is though, a particularly beautiful drawing/preparatory sketch, and the colours really sing in the darkened room.

The mind boggles as to what final price it will fetch at auction when the gavel comes down next month in New York on May 2nd. Sotheby’s reckons that the £50 million estimate is the highest that they have ever put on a piece of art for sale. It was a privilege to be able to view it before it disappears off to New York, and then from public view, doubtless into some anonymous private collection.   

Make a trip to Sotheby’s if you can before the work is sent to New York on Saturday, as there are also some other important pieces on view by the greats of 20th century art, such as Warhol, Bacon, Picasso, Dali, Magritte, Rodin and Matisse.

High Street

It is such a pleasure to finally get my hands on a copy of this book, (even if it is just the reprint and not an original). I have been an ardent admirer of Ravilious' work since a student, and the price of original copies of the book were way beyond my student means. High Street was originally published in 1938 in an edition of just 2000 copies. It is a highly sought after book as the original lithographic plates created at the Curwen Press were destroyed in the London Blitz, making original copies highly collectible. Ravilious himself also died during the Second World War. Ravilious's beautiful lithographs were complemented by the text of J. M. Richards, who gives interesting information about the architecture and interesting products produced and sold by each shop. Many of the first editions of the book have been butchered with people cutting out the plates and selling them as original lithographs.

The book is about the variety of shops which could be encountered on the typical British high street of the time. Many of the the shops were found in London, but Ravilious also travelled to Sudbury, Suffolk, and Castle Hedingham, Essex for the bicycle shop, firework shop and hardware shops respectively. The shop fronts and overall design of the book are very much of its period and this sense of nostalgia is what adds to its charm.

Among my favourites of the illustrations are the Oyster bar, Submarine Engineer, Restaurant and Grill Room and Letter Maker.