Saving The Scream

Written by Tristan Free

A recent paper seeks to prevent further degradation to one of the world’s most iconic and emotive images.

The Scream captures the moment Edvard Munch was briefly exposed to a piercing, anguished screech released by nature as colors and shapes abandoned their classical morphology. This vivid hallucinatory experience marked a potentially significant episode in the artist’s descent into a mental state that would later see him hospitalized.

Well over a hundred years on from this episode, what was a uniquely personal experience for the artist has germinated into one of the most prevalent and relatable images of our times. The elision of the nondescript figure’s sexlessness and its masterfully rendered expression of anguish creates a mirror, onto which the viewer can reflect their own personal experiences and emotions. These features have led The Scream to be used in pop culture, from films to protests, emojis to political statements.

Despite this, the permanence of this image may be under threat. The painting of The Scream belonging to the Munch Museum (Olso, Norway), one of the two most famous versions of the painting, is showing signs of degradation. The painting is a complex mix of tempera, oil, pastel and synthetic pigments. Areas of the painting that use cadmium sulfide – also known as cadmium yellow – including the sky and the neck of the figure, are slowly fading to an off-white hue.

To investigate the source of this degradation, an international collaboration of researchers led by the Italian National Research Council (CNR; Rome, Italy) set out to study the properties of the cadmium sulfide pigments used by Munch.

Taking microsamples from the cadmium-sulfide based areas of the painting, the team first analyzed the painting itself with macroscale in situ noninvasive spectroscopy studies using equipment from the European MOLAB platform. This was followed up by analysis of the corresponding microsamples using micro X-ray diffraction, X-ray micro fluorescence and micro X-ray absorption near edge structure spectroscopy.

These microsample analyses were conducted at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF; Grenoble, France). Explaining the utility of the ESRF, Koen Janssens (University of Antwerp, Belgium) stated that, “At the ESRF, ID21 is one of the very few beamlines in the world where we can perform imaging X-ray absorption and fluorescence spectroscopy analysis of the entire sample, at low energy and with sub-micrometer spatial resolution.”

These experiments were also carried out on artificially aged mock-ups of the painting with compositions resembling that of the lake in the panting. “Our goal was to compare the data from all these different pigments, in order to extrapolate the causes that can lead to deterioration,” explained corresponding author Letizia Monico (CNR).

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The study revealed that under conditions of high moisture and in the presence of chloride-compounds, the cadmium sulfide degraded to cadmium sulfate, regardless of illumination. “The synchrotron micro-analyses allowed us to pinpoint the main reason that made the painting decline, which is moisture. We also found that the impact of light in the paint is minor. I am very pleased that our study could contribute to preserve this famous masterpiece,” exclaimed Monico.

Cadmium sulfide is also prevalent in the work of artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse so this study could have a large impact in the field of art conservation and an upcoming development at the ESRF could make some of these techniques even more potent. “EBS, the new Extremely Brilliant Source, the first-of-a-kind high-energy synchrotron, under commission at the moment at the ESRF, will further improve the capabilities of our instruments for the benefit of world heritage science. We will be able to perform microanalyses with increased sensitivity, and a greater level of detail. Considering the complexity of these artistic materials, such instrumental developments will highly benefit the analysis of our cultural heritage,” declared Marine Cotte of the ESRF.

Going forward, the Munch Museum will look to store The Scream in conditions with a relative humidity below 45% in order to prevent further degradation. “The results of this study provide new knowledge, which may lead to practical adjustments to the Museum’s conservation strategy”, explained Irina CA Sandu, a conservation scientist at the museum.

The work done by this research collaboration has granted further years of life to an iconic painting, the loss of which would surely be a crying shame.