In Brief

Science Proves a Bird Didn’t Shit on Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”

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Edvard Munch’s “Der Schrei der Natur” (“The Scream”) (1893) (all photos courtesy University of Antwerp)

Rembrandt may have painted with the aid of optics and the Mona Lisa may have had high cholesterol levels, but we can finally put at least one longstanding mystery that has apparently plagued art history to rest: white splatters that grace the canvas of the earliest and most famous of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” paintings are not dried bird droppings. According to a devoted team of researchers from the Universities of Antwerp and Oslo as well as Oslo’s Nasjonalmuseet who analyzed the work, the markings are really wax — dribble from an accidentally tipped candle rather than that from a passing, pooping pigeon. They recently published their findings online, in a short study titled “Solving a Cold Case: the Bird Droppings Mystery.”

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Detail of one of the enigmatic splatters on the left shoulder of the figure (click to enlarge)

As Munch often painted en plein air, some art historians have believed that many of his works reveal traces of bird droppings. The researchers remained skeptical of such conclusions, noting that the white spots by the painted figure’s right shoulder look nothing like bird waste; the museum’s Paintings Conservator Thierry Ford also noted that dried bird poop usually corrodes while the mysterious substance lies on top of the paint, and parts that have flaked off in the past left no damage.

“It seemed more plausible that the splatters were actually white paint or chalk that had accidentally dripped on the ‘Scream’ while Munch was working on other paintings in his studio,” Tine Frøysaker, a professor at the University of Oslo said in a statement.

This May, the team began examining the painting — primarily to study Munch’s techniques, but, as cultural heritage scientist Dr. Geert Van der Snickt very rightly said, “it would have been a mistake not to exploit the passage of the Antwerp state-of-the-art equipment to try and settle the long standing bird droppings dispute.” After scanning the canvas, the team immediately ruled that the blemish was not paint, then analyzed a micro-sample using x-ray diffraction to conclude that its diffraction pattern was similar to that of molten wax. As an additional experiment, Van der Snickt even collected a specimen of bird excrement gathered in front of the Oslo Opera House (“I must admit I was a little embarrassed collecting this sample material in front of groups of tourists,” he said), and examined its diffraction pattern. He saw that it differed completely from the one of the painting’s micro-sample.

‘It is true that the bird droppings that I collected in the streets of Oslo can hardly be considered as a statistical relevant sounding, and that the composition of droppings is strongly dependent of the nutrition of the bird, but I sincerely doubt that Munch’s painting was sprayed by birds that happened to be fond of wax,” Van der Snickt said.

Now that we are certain “The Scream” is free of avian byproducts, below are future research papers I’d like to see published:

  • Hokusai’s Great Deception: How Boats Would Really Fare in a Wave of that Magnitude
  • Height Analysis of the Figures in “American Gothic” Based on Pitchfork Types
  • Morse Code Analysis Suggests Hidden Messages in Malevich’s Paintings
  • Caravaggio’s Chiaroscuro: Ingenious Contrast of Light, or Clever Mustard Stain Coverup?
  • Shining a UV Light on Tracey Emin’s “My Bed”: A Ground Reconnaissance
  • Definitive Proof that Damien Hirst’s Pickled Animals Did Leak Carcinogenic Fumes
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Collecting real bird droppings as reference material in front of the Opera building in Oslo
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Paintings Conservator Thierry Ford, Prof. Tine Frøysaker and Dr Geert Van der Snickt during the MA-XRF scanning experiment
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Frederik Vanmeert performing µ-XRD measurements in the X-ray lab of the University of Antwerp
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Right: MA-XRF scanning in progress; left: a researcher studies the splatters under the optical microscope
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