The Scream’ Is Fading. New Research Reveals Why.
The art world is increasingly turning to scientific analysis of pigments to find out how time has changed some famous paintings.
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“The Scream” is fading. And tiny samples of paint from the 1910 version of Edvard Munch’s famous image of angst have been under the X-ray, the laser beam and even a high-powered electron microscope, as scientists have used cutting-edge technology to try to figure out why portions of the canvas that were a brilliant orangeish-yellow are now an ivory white.
Since 2012, scientists based in New York and experts at the Munch Museum in Oslo have been working on this canvas — which was stolen in 2004 and recovered two years later — to tell a story of color. But the research also provides insight into Munch and how he worked, laying out a map for conservators to prevent further change, and helping viewers and art historians understand how one of the world’s most widely recognized paintings might have originally looked.
The art world is increasingly turning to labs to understand how paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries are behaving. Vincent van Gogh’s chrome yellows, some of which have started to brown, and his purples, some of which have turned blue, have been widely studied. But less is known about Munch’s palette, and scientists, using updated technologies and tools like transmission electron microscopes, are breaking new ground.
Jennifer Mass, the president of the Scientific Analysis of Fine Art lab in Harlem, whose team is on “The Scream” research, explained the science recently in her lab. She pointed to a photograph of what looked like a set of stalagmites: It was the surface of “The Scream” seen under a microscope.
“This is really, really not what you want to be seeing,” she said. Nanocrystals are growing on the painting, held by the Munch Museum — stark evidence of the degradation near the central figure’s mouth, in the sky and in the water.
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