Researchers Discover How to Preserve The Scream

Some misguided souls like to think of art and science as opposites, but the two impulses are intertwined. Scientists need deep creativity to stand at the frontier of knowledge and pull something solid out of the void. And artists creating things out of the material world are just as subject to the laws of science as anyone else.

Between 1893 and 1917, the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch painted and drew several versions of The Scream, the famous image in which a man puts his hands against the sides of his head and opens his mouth to scream while his whole body seems to waver and melt in horror. Meanwhile, the skies behind him blaze with the colors of a brilliant sunset.

Munch painted two versions of The Scream, one in 1893 and another around 1910. He experimented with different types of paints and pigments to make his colors as bright as he could, including new oil paints that contained the element cadmium. The 1910 version of the painting now shows signs of damage, including paint that is flaking and whitened. The Munch Museum where the painting is kept has not displayed the painting in many years and instead has kept it stored away to try to preserve it better.

Last Friday, researchers published a study that concludes that moisture in the environment is the main cause of damage to the painting. Exposure to light is not what caused the damage seen in the painting.

The researchers knew that paints made from the chemical cadmium-sulfide, as found in the 1910 painting, have whitened, flaked, and shown other signs of damage in other works of art from the same period of time. The researchers used high-tech methods to analyze the molecules of the painting without damaging the painting. The researchers used beams of x-rays and other forms of light generated in a giant donut-shaped particle accelerator in France to study how the chemicals in the paint had changed over time. The researchers were able to find out that exposure to water in the air was the main reason the paint had degraded.

Studying the details of the painting’s chemistry provides practical knowledge that will now help guide how the museum stores the artwork. The museum can reduce humidity around the painting and since light does not seem to damage the painting, perhaps return it to public display after many years of hiding it away from view.

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