Edvard Munch, the painter of “The Scream,” was no big fan of the Norwegian tax authorities.
An 1895 version of the painting fetched a record-shattering $120 million at a Sotheby’s auction in New York last week. No doubt the seller, a Norwegian businessman, will be paying a hefty share of taxes on the sale. But Munch himself apparently tangled with the tax authorities.
A Wall Street Journal blog post by Laura Saunders on Tuesday quoted a letter from Munch describing his own problems with taxes and bookkeeping.
“This tax problem has made a bookkeeper of me too,” Munch wrote. “I’m really not supposed to paint, I guess. Instead, I’m supposed to sit here and scribble figures in a book. If the figures don’t balance I’ll be put in prison. I don’t care about money. All I want to do with the limited time I have left is to use it to paint a few pictures in peace and quiet. By now, I’ve learned a good deal about painting and ought to be able to contribute my best. The country might benefit from giving me time to paint. But does anyone care?”
Munch’s biographer Sue Prideaux noted that Munch would often pen “hyperbolic rants” to the Norwegian tax authorities, accusing them of “wanting to tax the skin on his brain, the hand of the artist, the voice of the tenor, and the thoughts of the philosopher.”
[IMGCAP(1)]Art connoisseurs have long speculated what inspired Munch to paint his iconic masterpiece “The Scream,” and Saunders wonders whether his taxes might be the inspiration. Certainly a good many accountants and tax preparers have had good reason to scream over their clients’ tax returns, and taxpayers have been known to do some screaming of their own around April 15.
The tax theory of art might help explain a great many mysteries that have long bedeviled art scholars. For example, the famous Mona Lisa smile has puzzled millions of art fans who have wondered what might be prompting that inscrutable smirk. Could it be a particularly large refund she was expecting to receive on her Florentine tax return? How about Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte”? What makes Seurat’s pointillist depiction of a lazy Sunday afternoon seem so idyllic? Was the island actually an offshore tax haven?
Actually, Munch wrote about his original inspiration for the painting in his diary in 1892. “One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below,” he wrote. “I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.”
When he re-painted the picture in 1895, he even wrote about the experience in a poem on the frame of the pastel version of the painting. “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.”
Perhaps then it was just a brief panic attack. A number of museum curators too have had their own reasons to scream, as two versions of the painting have been stolen on two separate occasions, once from the National Gallery in Lillehammer in 1994 on the same day that the Winter Olympics opened in that Norwegian city. Ten years later, another version was stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Fortunately, both versions were later recovered and returned to the museums.
No doubt those thefts prompted a few Macaulay Culkin-like “Home Alone” screams in the bathroom mirror. But as tax season is over now, taxpayer screams and fits over tax debts should be easing up by now, at least until next tax season.
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