To Love an Unlovely Painting > IDEAS & IDEALS

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To Love an Unlovely Painting

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Weeks ago, I was taking a cursory look at the titles of the daily newspaper (The Chosun-Ilbo, July 14) delivered in the morning as usual, when my eyes fell on a small article about a sale of a painting at Sotheby's auction in New York last May. To my mild surprise and delight, the painting shown in the photo was familiar to me: The Scream by Edvard Munch (1863-1944), a Norwegian painter. But, the content of the article was wild enough to keep my mouth and eyes wide open for a while.

     Don't be surprised. No. Be ready to be surprised. The painting in question, The Scream, one of the four versions of the same title, far from being beautiful or lovely to me, was sold at the auction to an American billionaire and collector of the priceless paintings for $120 million (about 137,000,000,000 Won ) - an auction record for a piece of painting.  In short, the funny painting with the unpleasant title has become at last the world's most expensive one.

     Some of you may have already seen this unrealistic, somewhat strangely-looking painting somewhere and sometime before. A man is standing on a railed bridge facing you with both of his two hands covering his ears. His mouth is wide open and his hollow eyes are sunken and vacant. The man's haggard and ghostly face looks more like a skull of a dead man. The sun is going down, but it is not an ordinary view of the beautiful or peaceful sunset. It is a bloody sunset. The colors of red and yellow dominate the whole scene making you feel nervous and insecure. There is something spooky and ominous about it.

     Apparently there are no objects or elements that justify the title of the painting, The Scream. There is nothing that would frighten or threaten the man on the bridge except two men walking in the distance. No vehicles are passing by, nor airplanes flying low in the sky. Either the man himself screams for fear of something, or he hears some screaming sound coming from nowhere. Does he see or hear something terrible that we ordinary people do not? Is the man mentally sick or something? Who is the man? The painter Much himself?

     I saw this somewhat unnatural painting first in the art textbook when I was a highschool boy with curiosity and suspicion and have seen it here and there in the books on painting ever since, but without much love or admiration for it. Even my unexpected and memorable encounter with one of the originals of the painting at The National Museum of Arts in Oslo, Norway in 2009 during my sightseeing tour did not improve significantly my first unfavorable impression of this difficult painting. I always needed someone's help, comment and explanation about the painting to understand and enjoy it, but with little success and satisfaction.

     I knew, however, that it was a famous painting, but I was flabbergasted when I recently read in the Newsweek magazine (April 23-30, 2012) that The Scream is the world's second most famous painting - after the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. How could it be? Among so many good, beautiful and lovely paintings in the world that I love and admire, why should this Scream be so famous and so expensive? I could not accept the fact easily. Either something must be wrong with me or with them who love it so much and so passionately.

     Up until now I dismissed The Scream as a queer object of art, as I did  so many other difficult works of fine arts in the world with no qualms and lived in peace and happiness. I was cocksure of my aesthetic judgement. But now I think I must admit I was in the wrong. I was either too arrogant or simply too lazy in my fixed and hardened view. I think I must change and the change must come with an effort to love The Scream - unlovely to me but the second famous painting in the world and the most expensive one. There must be some reason for its being so.

    None the less, indeed, there is something mysterious about the fame of some works of art. Like the wind it is whimsical, groundless, and unpredictable. Like some vegetation it grows to be huge and luxurious disregarding your indifference, like or dislike. It has its own way of surviving the ridicule, misunderstanding or even disparagement, and finally it prevails, succeeds and triumphs. Like the fortune of man, it can not be foretold nor foreseen. It is simply a mystery.

     Very fortunately, I have a fairly large and good print of The Scream with me. I bought it at the gift shop of The National Museum of Art in Oslo when I visited the capital city of Norway as a tourist years ago. I was very glad to see it among so many other souvenirs at the shop. I bought it in spite of myself paying fairly large sum of money disregarding my wife's disapproval. I brought it home and have kept it somewhere in the closet untouched until now. 
     During my writing this essay it stood before me propped up against the wall beside my PC. I have become quite familiar with it by now. I find much of the strangeness of the painting have already disappeared and I see some strange beauty in it. It seems I have already begun to like it. I am going to have it framed and hang it on the wall where I can not avoid seeing it every day. Seeing is believing.
     (July 30, 2012)


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