In Brief

Please Stop Breathing on Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”

Scientists say “The Scream” is fading due to human breath. With museums around the world closed, the painting is getting some much needed social distance.

Edvard Munch, “The Scream” (1910) (Courtesy of the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway via Wikimedia Commons)

Edvard Munch’s 1910 version of his famous painting “The Scream” is fading. Not because of bad light conditions or improper display, but simply because people keep breathing on it, scientists say.

An international team of scientists used X-ray light and other research techniques to investigate the reasons for the deterioration of the paint in the iconic canvas. The scientists determined that Munch had accidentally used an impure cadmium yellow paint, which is so vulnerable to low humidity that it can fade and flake off because of human breath.

As a result, the bright yellow paint that Munch had originally used for the sunset background in the painting, and the neck area of its tortured protagonist, has gradually degraded into an off-white color tone. The thick yellow paint that he used for the lake above the screaming figure’s head is flaking off.

The scientists — hailing from Belgium, Italy, Brazil, and the United States — published their findings in the journal Science Advances.

“The extensive use of these new colored materials poses a challenge for the long-term preservation of Munch’s artworks because of their tendency to undergo (photo-)chemical transformations causing color changes and/or structural damage,” the researchers wrote.

In an interview with the Guardian, one of the scientists on the team, Koen Janssens from the University of Antwerp, advised visitors to the Munch Museum in Oslo, where the painting is displayed, to give the painting some breathing room. But with museums around the world closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the painting is finally getting some much needed social distance. (The Munch Museum is scheduled to reopen on June 15.)

“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,” he said.

Munch made four versions of “The Scream” between 1893 and 1910. In August of 2004, two masked gunmen raided the Munch Museum in Oslo and stole the 1910 canvas, together with the painting “Madonna” (1892-1895). The two paintings were recovered in a police operation in 2006.

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