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Nothing Says Christmas Like 700 Screaming Faces

By NPR Staff | NPR
Wednesday, December 4, 2013

As it has done for the past 16 years, the Embassy of Norway decorated a Christmas tree at Union Station in Washington, D.C. — a gift to the American people to say thanks for helping Norway during World War II.

This year is no different. The tree was lit in a ceremony Tuesday evening, but what stands out is the nature of the ornaments that adorn the artificial tree: In addition to small American and Norwegian flags, the tree is decked out with 700 shining decorations with the iconic image from Norwegian Edvard Munch's painting The Scream.

This month marks the 150th anniversary of Munch's birth, and Norway's ambassador to Washington, Kare Aas, told All Things Considered's Melissa Block the artist is being feted across the world.

"As you know, The Scream is one of Edvard Munch's masterpieces," Aas says.

Munch's painting of a ghostly figure pressing his hands to his cheeks, mouth open to deliver the nominal utterance and cowering against a swirling orange-skied backdrop is one of the most recognizable artworks in existence. It's been parodied by Andy Warhol and The Simpsons, and the image has been on the receiving end of psychological diagnoses — depersonalization disorder, according to the New York Times — and society's generalized anxieties.

The image may seem a decidedly unfestive choice to whip up Christmas spirit, but Aas says that the dread implicit in Munch's screaming figure is perhaps not far off from how many anticipate the upcoming holiday.

"Sometimes, you know, when I prepare for Christmas, I really feel like I am scared from time to time and that it is too hectic," Aas tells Block. "The Scream symbolizes an angst which some people have before Christmas."

That aside, Munch's Scream has become one of the priciest pieces of art ever sold. Last year, a version of the painting — Munch made four of them — sold for nearly $120 million, making it the most expensive artwork sold at auction at the time. (That superlative now belongs to Francis Bacon's 1969 triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which sold for more than $142 million in November.)

The Scream-ornamented tree at Union Station will be on display through December. So, what do you do with 700 Scream ornaments when the tree comes down? They'll be given as gifts, according to Aas. He says they could be used as reflectors when walking at night, perhaps. "We're always very practical, the Norwegians," the ambassador says.

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