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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's talk, for a moment, about the commercial possibilities of one of the most reproduced works of art ever. It has adorned key chains, coffee mugs, and the cover Time magazine. Andy Warhol used it, and now one of the four versions of "The Scream," by Edvard Munch, an iconic work, comes up for auction tonight at Sotheby's in New York. Sale estimates are as high as $80 million. NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: When I think of "The Scream," it takes me back to the 1960's and the Vietnam War. The image was everywhere on t-shirts and posters. It seemed to be both, a personal scream from the abyss and a symbol of that particular horror.

It was created in 1890s and seemed to portend two world wars and the holocaust. Simon Shaw the head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby's in New York says it's been a talisman in times of crisis.

SIMON SHAW: That crystallizes our fears and anxieties. In recent times, the financial crisis and the global turbulence, we've seen more and more use of "The Scream" since 2007 than ever before.

ADLER: Munch and other painters who were called Expressionists wanted to express a new internal, psychological form of reality. Laurie Wilson is both a psychoanalyst and an art historian. At bottom, she says, the image touches on something primitive within all of us, because we were all once young and helpless, like the hairless creature in the picture, without words and afraid. Munch managed to convey something all human beings have felt at some time, she says.

LAURIE WILSON: I am overwhelmed. I'm helpless. There's nothing I can do. And when I try to convey it in some way, whether I am screaming or I'm expressing some of what nature is screaming at me, other people ignore it.

ADLER: Munch captured something real, says Ana Mozol, a Jungian analyst in Vancouver. She dreamed on the image and found it deeply disturbing.

ANA MOZOL: Like a dark truth. It's like, in Jungian psychology we speak of the personal shadow and the collective shadow. I think in a moment like that, the way that I was seeing it, was a seeing through to the collective shadow.

ADLER: Munch himself described "The Scream" as an image for a godless age. The picture at Sotheby's, pastel on board, the most brightly colored of the four versions Munch created, is placed as if in a chapel. And Simon Shaw says Munch hoped people would take their hats off. Shaw says his colleague Phillip Hook describes the image...

SHAW: ...as the painting that launched a thousand therapists, because I think it does somehow capture that inward looking angst that we all have, we can all sympathize somehow, we can all empathize with this image in our different ways.

ADLER: Erzsi Karkus and Mitch Cheney, certainly did. Karkus is a lawyer and Cheney is a geologist, and they came to Sotheby's to see the work.

ERZSI KARKUS: What I love about it is the sky, like, the reds and the oranges. I just think that it is a very personal, very gut reaction that I have.

MITCH CHENEY: There's no - I mean, you can't even tell what sex the person is. It is just pure emotion, it transcends language, culture, it just - it hits us right in our soul.

DR. PHILLIP FREEMAN: I doubt I'm the only husband who's ever sent an image of "The Scream" to his wife in the middle of the day because the balance has tipped toward the unmanageable.

ADLER: Phillip Freeman, is a psychiatrist practicing in the Boston area. He says there's evidence that our reaction has changed over time. Most of our screams are private now, upset at the computer breakdown, the rigid bureaucrat.

FREEMAN: Instead of being a primal scream it is more of a Jack Benny take to a forgetful god.

ADLER: Once full of dread, it becomes something more ironic. Or even, by transferring the image to a consumer item, we manage the unmanageable, say analysts Ana Mozol and Laurie Wilson.

WILSON: It's only a coffee cup.

MOZOL: It's almost like, if it is out there, it is not in here. And if we can see the projection of it mirrored in the outer world, somehow we don't have to do the difficult work of going in to the place within our own psyche where that image lives.

ADLER: But Munch also spoke about "The Scream," as the scream in nature. Mozol points to the myth of the rape of Persephone, whose abduction by the god of the underworld created winter.

MOZOL: This is the scream that went under and that wasn't heard. And I think that that can also be amplified to the scream of nature or the scream of the earth.

ADLER: In blood red paint on the front of the original frame that holds this version of "The Scream," Munch wrote the poem that inspired the image.

(Reading) I was walking along the road with two friends. The sun was setting. The sky turned a bloody red, and I felt a whiff of melancholy. I stood still, deathly tired, over the blue black fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire. My friends walked on. I remained behind, shivering with anxiety. I felt the great scream in nature.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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