It’s one of the most recognizable images in all of art. It’s Norwegian artist Edvard Munch’s iconic vision The Scream:an agonized figure —little more than a garbed skull and hands — set against a background of blood-colored sky. And last month, it sold for a record-setting price. But could it have been inspired, at least in part, by his tax return?
Munch grew up in Oslo, son of a dour priest. At 16, he enrolled in college to become an engineer. He did well, but he quickly dropped out, disappointing his father, to study painting, which he saw as an attempt “to explain life and its meaning” to himself. At 18, he enrolled at the Royal School of Art and Design of Christiana, where he began painting portraits. His personal style addressed psychological themes and incorporated elements of naturalism, impressionism, and symbolism. He wound up studying in Paris and exhibiting in Berlin before painting the first of four versions of The Scream in 1893.
In 1908, Munch suffered a brief breakdown, followed by a recovery. That recovery brightened Munch’s art as well as his life, as his later work becoming more colorful and less pessimistic. He finally gained the public approval he had sought for so long; he was made a Knight of the Royal Order of St. Olav; and he hosted his first American exhibit. Munch spent the last years of his life painting quietly and alone on a farm just outside Oslo. Today, he appears on Norway’s 1,000 kroner note, set against a background inspired by his work.
We remember Munch now for his art, not his life. But that life included some frustrating run-ins with the tax man. Apparently, Munch wasn’t any happier keeping timely and accurate records than the rest of us. Here’s part of a letter that his biographer, Sue Prideaux, quotes him as writing, in her book Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream:
“This tax problem has made a bookkeeper of me too. 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?”
Even without that tortured face in The Scream, most of us can still probably relate to his frustration!
Last month, Sotheby’s auction house in New York sold a pastel-on-board version of The Scream that Munch painted in 1895 for $119.9 million — a new record for art sold at auction. The seller was Norwegian billionaire Petter Olsen; the buyer remains unknown. If the seller had been American, there could have been quite a tax to pay. “Capital gains” from the sale of appreciated property held more than 12 months are ordinarily capped at 15%. (Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has proposed eliminating tax on capital gains for taxpayers earning under $200,000; while President Obama has proposed raising them to 20% for taxpayers earning over $250,000.) But paintings like The Scream are classed as “collectibles” and subject to a top tax of 28%. (You would be disappointed if we didn’t say that’s enough to make a collector scream!).