Editor's Note: Michael Schulder is a CNN Senior Executive Producer.
I've been obsessing over "The Scream" ever since the painting sold for a record $120 million at Sotheby's last week. Most others have dwelled how disturbing that contorted, anxious face is. But I find the face inspiring, even uplifting. Maybe it's because I now know the inside story of "The Scream." Maybe it's because I spoke with Sue Prideaux, who spent countless hours reading the artist's diaries and personal letters for her biography "Edvard Munch: Behind the Scream."
I reached Prideaux on her cell phone in London after she returned on an overnight flight from The Auction That Broke The Record. After sweetly telling her grandchildren to take their shoes off before playing on the bed, she took me back more than a century -- to a cemetery in Oslo, Norway. It was the summer of 1895. The artist, Edvard Munch, penniless and past 30, was at his brother's funeral. Munch had already drawn the first of four versions of "The Scream." It didn't sell. Nothing he drew sold.
A relative came up to him and said: "Why don't you paint something people will buy, Edvard? I know perfectly well you can do it. When you think of it, it's really inconsiderate of you, especially when you know how poor we all are."
It's enough to make anyone scream.
That voice was part of a never-ending chorus of critics.
Munch didn't listen to the critics. "We paint souls," he declared of himself and a small group of determined artists and writers. One of his life's commandments: "Thou shalt write thy life."
How did Munch manage to write his life, to listen to his own voice, penniless year after penniless year? "Complete introspection," says Prideaux. And the "absolute ability to be alone."
Much of Munch's early life was written for him, as it is for us all. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was only four. After her body was removed from the home, his father gathered Edvard and his siblings and told them "Mother is here. She will always be watching over you."
"Poor little Munch went looking behind the curtains and under the bed for his mother," says Prideaux. He took his father literally.
The pain kept coming. His beloved sister died of TB when she was a teenager, and Munch contracted the disease too as a teen and nearly died. He found his father "obsessively religious." From him, said Munch, "I inherited the seeds of madness." Another sister was suffering terribly from mental illness.
Prideaux gives us a snapshot of Munch's life at the time of "The Scream." "Munch was hitting 30. He was incredibly unsuccessful as an artist. He was very, very poor and at the end of a disastrous love affair. Insanity was in the family. He had a fear he himself would go insane. His sister Laura was committed to a madhouse for schizophrenia"
One day, Munch was taking a stroll with a couple of friends at sunset, not far from the asylum. The friends saw the sun set. Munch saw something else. Here's how he described the moment in his diary: "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."
And so he drew "The Scream." Prideaux says it was immediately obvious to the intelligentsia in parts of Europe that this was a great work of art. Munch made quite a few sets of lithographs from the drawing -- but it did not sell.
Prideaux carefully documents the voices of the critics. Over the years they'd called him Bizarro, because his art seemed so crazy. One said his art looked like laundry hanging on a line -- like messy linen. A university held a public debate questioning his sanity. Munch wasn't invited. He snuck in, hid behind a curtain, and listened to the voices. Of the critics, he said: "They love to slaughter a painter for breakfast and spread him on their bread like marmalade."
But he kept painting what he experienced. What drove him to keep to his vision? What drives anyone? "Integrity," says Prideaux. "A complete belief in yourself and what you're doing." Fortunately, for Munch, his story did not end with some lithographs of The Scream sitting on a shelf.
Finally, in his mid 40s, Munch's art began to sell. He did quite well. Not $119 million well -- but well enough to help support other young artists. He lived until he was 80. Not the kind of life most of us would seek. He was very much alone.
"My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder … My sufferings are part of my self and my art … and their destruction would destroy my art," he once said.
There is so much darkness in Munch's life. And yet, Prideaux finds Munch's story uplifting, and now, I do too.
Perhaps it was a moment in Prideaux's childhood that enabled her to lock on to what gave Edvard Munch the strength to persist, to write his own story, to express the scream inside him that prevailed over the voices outside.
"I was a very timid little person," she says. "I had a teacher and she said: 'Sue, you know what you must do? You must always look your dragons in the eye. You won't be frightened of them then."