Researchers Find Key to Preserving ‘The Scream’

“The Scream” by Edvard Munch (1910), tempera on cardboard

(CN) — Moisture slowly ripping apart one of the world’s most recognizable and influential paintings? That is worth screaming about, according to a study released Friday by researchers who uncovered the culprit behind the degradation of Edvard Munch’s masterpiece “The Scream.”

Munch, born in Norway in 1863, is regarded as one of modernism’s most significant artists with a collection of paintings that are part of the currents of symbolist and expressionist art movements.

“The Scream” — which Munch produced as part of a series of paintings he would later call The Frieze of Life — is arguably his most famous work and has come to symbolize feelings of despair, anxiety and fear that are part of the human condition.

The Norwegian painter documented his process for creating the masterpiece, according to researchers with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

“I walked one evening on a road. I was tired and ill. I stood looking out across the fjord, the sun was setting. The clouds were colored red, like blood,” Munch said, according to documents reviewed by researchers. “I felt as though a scream went through nature. I thought I heard a scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds like real blood. The colors were screaming.”

There are various versions of the famous work — including two paintings, two pastels, several lithographic prints and a few drawings and sketches by Munch — and each are unique in their composition.

The two most well-known versions of the familiar image are the paintings that Munch created in 1893 and 1910.

The painting produced in 1910, which is held at the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway, exhibits clear signs of degradation in different areas where Munch used cadmium-sulfide-based pigments.

The 1910 masterpiece is seldom put out on public display due to its condition, which declined further after a 2004 theft when the painting disappeared for two years.

An international team of scientists led by Italy’s Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (National Research Council) set out to investigate the reason behind the slow deterioration of the painting.

Researchers used both an in situ noninvasive spectroscopic device at the Munch Museum and a synchrotron X-ray device housed within the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility.

The ESRF device located in Grenoble, France, is the world’s brightest X-ray source and a critical tool in the study, according to University of Antwerp researcher Koen Janssens.

“At the ESRF, [the synchrotron device] is one of the very few beamlines in the world where we can perform imaging X-ray absorption and fluorescence spectroscopy analysis of the entire sample, at low energy and with sub-micrometer spatial resolution,” Janssens said in a statement.

View of the European Synchrotron (ESRF) in Grenoble, France. (Photo courtesy of ESRF / Stef Candé)

The X-ray machine allowed researchers to analyze microflakes originating from pigments in the painting in a nondestructive method.

Using the powerful device, researchers found moisture is the main environmental factor triggering degradation of the masterpiece, according to the study published Friday in the journal Science Advances.

Study co-author and CNR researcher Letizia Monico said in a statement she’s pleased the project could help preserve the famous work.

“The synchrotron micro-analyses allowed us to pinpoint the main reason that made the painting decline, which is moisture,” Monico said. “We also found that the impact of light in the paint is minor.”

In his iterations of “The Scream,” Munch used a broad range of media — such as oils, pastels and tempera pigments to find the right mix of color to convey certain emotions. But Munch’s extensive use of coloring materials may be inhibiting the long-term preservation of his works, according to researchers who examined the nature of the various cadmium-sulfide pigments used by Munch.

Yellow brushstrokes in the painting — produced using cadmium — have turned off-white in the work’s cloudy sunset sky and in the neck area of the central figure, who is holding the sides of its face.

In the lake behind the work’s central figure, a thickly applied opaque cadmium yellow paint is also flaking, according to researchers who also examined pigment degradation in a copy of the masterpiece.

Researchers created an artificially aged mockup of the work using old cadmium powder and an old tube of Munch’s oil paint.

“Our goal was to compare the data from all these different pigments, in order to extrapolate the causes that can lead to deterioration,” Monico said.

Researchers found the original cadmium sulfide converts into cadmium sulfate when exposed to chloride compounds in high-moisture conditions, even when there is no light exposure, the study said.

Many of Munch’s contemporaries, including Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh and James Ensor, also used cadmium-sulfide-based yellows in their paintings, meaning this study’s findings could aid in their conservation as well, said study co-author Costanza Miliani.

“The integration of noninvasive in-situ investigations at the macro-scale level with synchrotron micro-analyses proved its worth in helping us to understand complex alteration processes,” said Miliani.

“It can be profitably exploited for interrogating masterpieces that could suffer from the same weakness. This kind of work shows that art and science are intrinsically linked, and that science can help preserve pieces of art so that the world can continue admiring them for years to come.”

Marine Cotte said world heritage science can only benefit from the use of ESRF’s high-energy synchrotron device.

“We will be able to perform microanalyses with increased sensitivity, and a greater level of detail,” Cotte said in a statement. “Considering the complexity of these artistic materials, such instrumental developments will highly benefit the analysis of our cultural heritage.”

Irina C. A. Sandu, conservation scientist at the Munch Museum, said in a statement the findings will help the museum properly adjust its preservation strategy.

“The right formula to preserve and display the main version of ‘The Scream’ on a permanent basis should include the mitigation of the degradation of the cadmium yellow pigment by minimizing the exposure of the painting to excessively high moisture levels (trying to reach 45% RH or lower), while keeping the lighting at standard values foreseen for lightfast painting materials,” Sandu said.

The 1910 masterpiece is kept in protected storage in the Munch Museum under controlled conditions of lighting, temperature and relative humidity, according to Eva Storevik Tveit, paintings conservator at the museum.

“Today the Munch Museum stores and exhibits Edvard Munch’s artworks at a relative humidity of about 50% and at a temperature of around 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit),” Tveit said in a statement. “That said, the museum will now look into how this study may affect the current regime.”

Researchers did not immediately respond to a request for further comment by press time.

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