<img src = "https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/the-scream-xray-800×450.jpg" alt = "Edvard Munchs 1910 version of The Scream shows signs of deterioration. The new synchrotron radiation analysis provides a key to its conservation. "/>
Enlarge /. Edvard Munch's 1910 version of The Scream shows signs of deterioration. The new synchrotron radiation analysis provides a key to its conservation.
Edvard Munch / Aurich Lawson
Edvard Munch's The Scream is one of the most famous modern paintings. It inspires screen prints from Andy Warhol, the mask of the killer in the 1996 film Scream, and the appearance of an alien race known as The Silence in Doctor Who, Culture Tribute. But the canvas shows alarming signs of deterioration. This damage is not due to exposure to light, but to moisture – especially from the breath of museum visitors, who may lean forward to take a closer look at the master's brush strokes. This is the result of a new study in the journal Science Advances by an international team of scientists from Belgium, Italy, the USA and Brazil.
In fact, there are several versions of The Scream, each of which is unique: two paintings – one in 1893 and another around 1910 – as well as two pastels, a series of lithographic prints, and a handful of drawings and sketches. The inspiration for the painting was a particularly spectacular sunset, which the artist witnessed on a walk. Munch noted the incident in a diary entry dated January 22, 1892:
One evening I went along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and sick. I stopped and looked over the fjord – the sun went down and the clouds turned blood red. I felt a cry that went through nature. it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as real blood. The color screeched. This became the cry.
Some astronomers believe that this sunset was probably an aftermath of the Krakatoa eruption in Indonesia in 1883. Reports of similarly intense sunsets were made in several parts of the western hemisphere over several months in 1883 and 1884. Other scholars reject this thought and argue that Munch was not known for painting verbatim representations of things he had seen. An alternative explanation is that the red sky was the result of mother-of-pearl clouds that are common in this particular latitude. But the place where Munch was most likely to witness the sunset was identified: a street with a view of Oslo from Ekeberg Hill.
The 1893 version of The Scream was stolen from the Norwegian National Gallery in Oslo in 1994, where it had been moved to a new gallery as part of the 1994 Winter Olympics celebrations. (To make the injury worse, the thieves left a note, "Thanks for the poor security.") The gallery refused to pay the ransom, the thieves were finally caught, and the painting was recovered a few months later.
In 2004, masked armed men and Munch's Madonna stole the 1910 version of The Scream from the Munch Museum in Oslo. Although several men were convicted of the crime, the paintings were not recovered until August 2006. Both had suffered minor damage; The Madonna had several small tears and the scream showed signs of moisture damage in the lower right corner.
But even before the robbery, the canvas had shown signs of deterioration. According to the authors of this latest paper, "Munch experimented with the use of various binders (tempera, oil and pastel) in blends with brilliant and strong synthetic pigments … to 'colors' by combinations of brightly saturated contrasts to scream bring colors and variations in the gloss level of their surfaces. "However, these materials also represent a challenge for nature conservationists, since the materials tend to change colors and structural damage due to photochemical reactions.
Photography of the Scream (around 1910), Munch Museum, Oslo; Catalog n. Woll.M.896.
Irina Crina Anca Sandu / Eva Storevik Tveit / Munch Museum
View of the ESRF, the European Synchrotron, Grenoble, France.
ESRF / Stef Candé
(From l-r) Annalisa Chieli (University of Perugia, Italy), Letizia Monico (CNR, Italy) and Gert Nuys (University of Antwerp, Belgium) measuring cadmium-yellow microflakes from The Scream (around 1910).
For example, in the 1910 version of The Scream, the light yellow color in the background of the sunset and the neck area of the screaming figure shifted to a cream color, while the thick yellow color for the lake peels off over the figure's head. For this reason it is rarely exhibited these days and kept in a protected storage area with carefully controlled lighting conditions, temperature and humidity.
In 2010, scientists analyzed the composition of the versions of The Scream from 1893 and 1910 and found that the pigments used contained cadmium yellow, vermilion, ultramarine and viridian, all of which were common in the 19th century. Several studies (using different methods) on the degradation of cadmium yellow pigments have also been carried out, particularly in paintings by Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh. According to the authors of this latest paper, Munch's choice of cadmium yellow is the biggest challenge.
"It turned out that instead of using pure cadmium sulfide, he also appeared to be using a dirty version, a not very clean version that contained chlorides," Antwerp University co-author Koen Janssens told The Guardian. "I don't think it was an intentional use. I think he just didn't buy a very high level of paint. This is 1910 and at that point the chemical industry that makes the chemical pigments is there, but that means not that they have today's quality control. "
Janssens and his colleagues trusted the ID21 beam line of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, to further investigate the Munch colors used. Synchrotron radiation is a thin beam of very high intensity X-rays that is generated in a particle accelerator. Electrons are fired into a linear accelerator to increase their speed and then injected into a storage ring. They zoom through the ring at almost the speed of light, while a series of magnets bends and focuses the electrons. They emit X-rays, which can then be focused on beam lines. This is useful for structural analysis, since in general the details that can be imaged and / or analyzed are the finer the shorter the wavelength used (and the higher the energy of light).
"When people breathe, they produce moisture and release chlorides."
The scientists performed luminescence imaging of the canvas to determine where the worst color degradation occurred. Thanks to a portable mobile spectroscopic platform, they were able to do this on site in the museum. Then they used the ESRF beamline to analyze tiny fragments of color (microflakes) in Munch's brushstrokes from these regions and an original cadmium yellow tube he used. They also analyzed samples of artificially aged color models for control purposes.
The results: "Synchrotron microanalysis allowed us to determine the main reason for the decline in the painting, namely moisture," said Letizia Monico of the CNR in Italy. "We also found that light has little impact on color. I am very pleased that our study has helped to preserve this famous masterpiece."
The results suggest that better humidity control is the key to preserving the canvas for future generations. "You have to start working with the relative humidity in the museum or isolating the public from the painting or painting from the public, so we say that the public can appreciate it, but they don't breathe on the surface of the museum painting" said Janssens to The Guardian. "When people breathe, they produce moisture and release chlorides, so it is generally not good for paintings to be too close to the breath of all passers-by."
This is not currently an issue as museums around the world are temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the Munch Museum is scheduled to reopen on June 15, and if so, Janssens et al. advise future visitors to keep a safe distance. There is no need to further reduce the level of light, as the study has shown that light is not the main culprit for degradation. Given the continuing threat of moisture, the authors recommended the museum to lower the relative humidity somewhat below the current 50 percent. Unfortunately, nothing can be done about the water damage in the lower left corner of the painting, which is the result of the robbery.
DOI: Science Advances, 2020. 10.1126 / sciadv.aay3514 (About DOIs).