Nothing Says Christmas Like 700 Screaming Faces

Originally published on December 4, 2013 7:20 pm

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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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Five, four, three, two, one, blast off...

(APPLAUSE)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

'Tis the season for the lighting of Christmas trees in public spaces.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) We wish you a Merry Christmas...

BLOCK: Last night at Union Station, here in Washington, D.C., a 32-foot tree was illuminated. It's decorated each year by the Norwegian Embassy as a gift to the American people. But what caught our eye this year was the unusual choice of decoration, and Norway's Ambassador to the U.S. Kare Aas joins me to explain.

Ambassador Aas, there are hundreds of these ornaments - unlikely ornaments. What are they?

AMBASSADOR KARE AAS: There are actually 700 ornaments on the tree. They are symbolizing "The Scream," the painting of Edvard Munch.

BLOCK: "The Scream?"

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

BLOCK: So that ghostly figure pressing his hands up to his cheeks and screaming, there are 700 of those all over this tree.

AAS: There are 700, yes. And it's really beautiful.

BLOCK: Well, you know, it's funny, because when I think of Christmas, I don't necessarily think of "The Scream."

AAS: Sometimes, you know, when I prepare for Christmas, I really feel that I'm scared from time to time...

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You do.

AAS: ...and it's too hectic. And it's also - sometimes also very nervous for preparing the Christmas. So I think, in fact, also "The Scream" symbolizes sort of an angst which some people have before Christmas.

BLOCK: You think it's appropriate, actually, for sort of the pre-Christmas tension.

AAS: I think so. I think so. But also, I think it's important also to underline more seriously that this was 150 years since Edward Munch was born.

BLOCK: Aha, so it's the 150th anniversary of his birth.

AAS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And we have been celebrating Edvard Munch all over the world in 2013.

BLOCK: Well, you have 700 of these "Scream" ornaments, Ambassador Aas. What do you do with them after the tree comes down?

AAS: Well, we're taking down the tree in January. I think that we will give these 700 ornaments as gifts to colleagues and American interlocutors, I would say.

BLOCK: Oh really? That's your sort of diplomatic outreach...

(LAUGHTER)

AAS: Yeah, it is. But I'm not sure, Melissa, whether you also know it but this is actually also a reflective ornament. And these reflective ornaments are used in Norway particularly among the younger population, when they walk to school, when they go to visit friends so that the cars can see them when they're walking out in the streets, and in the dark season of the year.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

AAS: Could be also helpful to many citizens of this, even as they're walking around - hmm. And then, of course, we hope that more Americans will use these reflective ornaments in the future.

BLOCK: You're very practical, aren't you?

AAS: We are always very practical, the Norwegians.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Well, Ambassador Aas, happy holidays. Thanks for talking with us.

AAS: Yeah, yeah, thanks to you.

BLOCK: That's Norway's ambassador to the United States Kare Aas.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

BLOCK: One last thing before I let you go. How do you say the scream in Norwegian?

AAS: Skrik.

BLOCK: Skrik.

AAS: Skrika. You should start to learn Norwegian because you take all the words immediately. I'm very really, really, really impressed.

(LAUGHTER)

AAS: Skrik.

BLOCK: Skrik, it sounds scarier in Norwegian...

AAS: Yeah. Yeah. It's scarier than the scream. Yes, of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG)

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.