'The Scream': Edvard Munch's masterpiece on angst fading because of viewers breathing on it, say researchers

The iconic piece of art has become a universally symbol of modernist anxiety since the turn of the century


                            'The Scream': Edvard Munch's masterpiece on angst fading because of viewers breathing on it, say researchers
A gallery technician at Sotheby's auction house views 'The Scream' by Edvard Munch on April 12, 2012 in London (Getty Images)

Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' is an iconic piece of art that has become a universally symbol of modernist anxiety since the turn of the century. To some extent, it draws stark contrasts to Leonardo Da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa', a portrait that evokes a Renaissance ideal of tranquility and self-control.

When Munch created his masterpiece, he made several versions - two paintings (one at Oslo National Gallery and the other at Munch Museum), two pastels and a number of prints from a lithograph. The first painting was made in 1893.

The painting depicts the horrors of wars that persisted in the 20th century and the anguish they engendered. Essentially, the expressionistic painting is an autobiographical account of an actual experience from the Norweigian painter's life where he claimed to have heard a scream pierce through nature while he was on a walk. His two companions left him to his devices, as seen in the background of the painting. At the time, he wasn't exactly in the right state of mind and may have been abnormal when he'd heard the scream. Nevertheless out of this experience he created a haunting and iconic piece of art which highlights the precariousness of human integrity and angst.

Munch in 1902, in the garden of his patron Dr. Max Linde in Lübeck; in the background is a cast of Auguste Rodin's sculpture Iron Era (Wikimedia Commons)

In a diary entry titled 'Nice 22 January 1892', he wrote, "One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream."

He later described the inspiration for the painting thus: "I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – 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."

The world-famous 1910 version of the painting, tempera on cardboard, has been housed at the Munch Museum for decades, and museum-goers have noticed over the years that the painting has begun to fade. The conservation department at the museum had been working with an international association of scientists led by Italy's National Research Council to determine the cause of the painting's deterioration.

Earlier this week they were able to gauge the problem and published their findings in the journal Science Advances. They discovered that Munch had accidentally used a low-quality tube of cadmium-sulfide, which is vulnerable to moisture and tends to flake or fade even in relatively low humidity. This also includes the humidity as a result of human breath when in close proximity to the painting.

1910, tempera on cardboard. This version was stolen from the Munch Museum in 2004, but recovered in 2006 (Wikimedia Commons)

The areas above the lake and around the sunset in the masterpiece were once painted bright yellow, but have now turned into an off-white color. “It turned out that rather than use pure cadmium sulfide as he should have done, apparently he also used a dirty version, a not very clean version that contained chlorides,” said Prof Koen Janssens from the University of Antwerp to the Guardian

“I don’t think it was an intentional use – I think he just bought a not very high level of paint. This is 1910 and at that point, the chemical industry producing the chemical pigments is there but it doesn’t mean they have the quality control of today.”

Cadmium sulfide was widely used in paint production in the early 20th century and was made at times from a chemical reaction between cadmium chloride and sodium sulfide. A theory proposes that compounds comprising chlorides like cadmium chloride or cadmium hydroxy chloride could have been remnants in the paint due to an incomplete chemical reaction. 

According to the study, the yellow pigments in the painting have been flaking and fading for years. Further damage was caused when it was stolen from the gallery in 2004, and only recovered two years later, and since then it had been mostly kept out of view in a light and temperature-controlled storage unit. The consortium of scientists that were researching the painting first tested if reducing its exposure to light would be significant in further deterioration. 

“But it turned out that the light is not really very harmful so it doesn’t make sense to reduce light levels below the normal one,” Janssens told Guardian. “You have to start working with the relative humidity in the museum, or isolate the public from the painting, or painting from the public, let’s say, in a way that the public can appreciate it but they are not breathing on the surface of the painting.”

Edvard Munch's 'The Scream' is seen at a media preview of Sotheby's May 2012 Sales of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art on April 27, 2012 in New York City. The masterpiece is one of four versions created by Munch and the only one that is privately owned. It will be auctioned May 2 and is expected to fetch over $80 million (Getty Images)

Experts used UV lights to study the degraded areas within the painting, and the exposure to light was ruled out as a cause for its deterioration. It had little effect on the painting compared to humidity. “When people breathe they produce moisture and they exude chlorides so in general with paintings it is not too good to be close too much to the breath of all the passersby," Janssens added. The Munch Museum is due to relocate to Oslo's opera house late this year, and the curators will be charged with finding better ways to display the painting based on the researcher's findings. 

Five things you may not know about 'The Scream'

Several versions but the first one was made and displayed in 1893

1895, lithograph print. About 45 prints were made before the printer repurposed the lithograph stone; a few were hand-colored by Munch (Wikimedia Commons)

While the first version that Munch displayed was painting, he made a lithograph stone, two years later, with the title 'The Scream'  printed at the bottom in German. He used the lithograph to print several copies of the painting, sometimes going as far as to hand-color it. The printed versions helped establish Munch as an internationally renowned artist.  

It was stolen twice

Although it is a highly unusual representation, this painting might be of the Virgin Mary. Whether the painting is specifically intended as a representation of Mary is disputed. Munch used more than one title, including both Loving Woman and Madonna (Wikimedia Commons)

The painting was stolen twice. Thieves broke into the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994 and ran off with 'The Scream'. Fortunately, it was found and returned within the next three months. In 2004, armed robbers broke into the Munch Museum and stole a different version of 'The Scream' along with another Munch classic, 'Madonna'. Both the paintings were missing for two years and were recovered in 2006 amid fears that they may have been damaged beyond repair or disposed of. 

The figure in 'The Scream' isn't actually screaming

According to Munch, the actual scream came from nature or the environment around the central angsty character. The artist printed ‘I felt a large scream pass through nature’ in German below his 1895 version. Furthermore, the figure in the painting is trying to block out the sound of the 'shriek' that it supposedly heard. Since the physical features of the figure are vague and neutral, it has been de-individualized and possibly the main reason why it has become the universal symbol of anxiety.

It is an imminent part of pop culture

The mask from Scream (1996) was inspired by The Scream (Wikimedia Commons)

Pop-artist Andy Warhol recreated 'The Scream' in his style in a series of silk-screen prints. Even the iconic poster for the 1990 'Home Alone', starring Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McAllister was inspired by the painting. Furthermore, the mask worn by Ghostface in the comedy slasher film 'Scream' was inspired by Munch's work. 

The figure in 'The Scream' may have been inspired by a mummy

A Peruvian mummy at La Specola, Florence. (Wikimedia Commons)

The central figure in the painting -  a genderless figurine standing with its mouth agape and hands cupping its ears to block out the 'shriek' may have been inspired by the Peruvian mummy. The hollow-eyed bound skeletal remains were on display at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, Paris in 1889 and there's a high chance Munch visited the exhibition and added it to his painting from memory. 

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