The problem is that of all the works which could fetch $120 million, this is one of the least impressive
Why has someone spent $120 million on Edvard Munch's The Scream? As one tweeter pointed out, it's because they can, which is fine as long as you accept that they must have bought everything else in the world before they got round to this piece of overblown Expressionism.
Another suggestion has been that its agonised figure, suffering the scream of nature/his own psychological trauma (interpret as desired), reflects our troubled times. With our economic crisis and political uncertainty and a ubiquitous mood of gloom, which billionaire doesn't feel like clasping their head?
There is also, of course, its fame – highly undeserved, I would argue, but extant nonetheless. Once you've hidden this picture away in your billionaire's batcave, at least all your guests will recognise it. They might not think you have tremendous taste, but they'll know you have a lot of money.
The problem is that of all the works which could fetch $120 million – most of which are in museums, thus will never be sold – this is one of the least impressive. In fact, it's hard to see why Munch's kitsch work went that high. The Cezanne the Qataris bought for $250m in a private sale – now that's worth the money.
Even Sotheby's, who have never knowingly undersold a work, could only find euphemisms to describe it in their press release: 'The iconic work is one of the most instantly recognizable images in both art history and popular culture, perhaps second only to the Mona Lisa.' It has a 'powerfully-rendered' sky. It is the 'projection of Munch's mental state that was so artistically innovative' by letting psychological realism into art.
Only that last claim has merit, yet the Impressionists were doing this in a much less obvious way. How do you paint anxiety, asked Munch. Have someone in agony, of course! It's the complete lack of subtlety which makes this an inferior work.
There's another phrase worth noting in the press release: 'The Scream is instantly recognizable – from Beijing to Moscow to New York.' Beijing is the important word here. Sotheby's were relying on an emerging-market mogul (even if not from China) to buy this, with all the supposed cachet that comes with it. European collectors, if there are any left, wouldn't touch it because it would be almost embarrassing to own it – a lapse in taste.