What has been causing the colors of Edvard Munch’s word-famous 1910 painting The Scream to fade? The conservation department at the Munch Museum in Oslo had long been wondering this, and now, scientists have their answer.
An international consortium of scientists, working in collaboration with the museum and led by Italy’s National Research Council, has published a paper in the journal Science Advances that claims that the main cause of fading is the low-quality cadmium-sulfide paint Munch used during the painting’s creation in 1910. (The Munch Museum’s painting is one of four versions of the iconic image.) The pigment he used is vulnerable to moisture, the study suggests, and even the low-level humidity produced from close human breath is enough to deteriorate the color.
“It turned out that rather than use pure cadmium sulphide as he should have done, apparently he also used a dirty version, a not very clean version that contained chlorides,” Koen Janssens, a professor at the University of Antwerp who worked on the study, told 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.”
The yellow pigments Munch used to create the canvases’ intense, swirling sunset, lake, and iconic, anguished figure have been flaking and fading for years, according to the study. Further damage occurred when the painting was stolen from the gallery in 2004, along with a version of his Madonna. Both were recovered in 2006, and the 1910 version of The Scream has since been kept largely out of view, in a light- and temperature-controlled storage unit.
During the study, experts illuminated the canvas with UV light to determine where the paint had degraded. Exposure to light was soon proven to have little effect on the painting compared to humidity.
The Munch Museum is expected to reopen soon in a new location near Oslo’s opera house, and now curators will be charged with determining how the painting can be safely viewed by the public. The long-awaited relocation was postponed to fall 2020 after the galleries’ indoor climate control system failed.