Story at a glance

  • “The Scream” is a popular work by Norweigen expressionist artist Edvard Munch.
  • One of four original versions of the work has deteriorated due to the quality of one of the paints.
  • The National Museum in Oslo plans to adjust the display when the piece is next available for public view.

The human breath can be deadly, passing on contagious diseases such as the novel coronavirus. But it’s not just other living creatures who are at risk. 

Edvard Munch's famous work, "The Scream," is the latest victim, according to experts who have been studying its deterioration. 

Munch created four versions of the piece, including one painted in 1910 that was stolen in 2004. Since recovered in 2006, the painting has been in the possession of the Munch Museum in Oslo. But flakes of the paint have come off, leaving previously yellow strokes a faded off-white. 

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Experts have now determined that the yellow used in the 1910 version had a different chemical composition than the pigment used in earlier versions, one that is more sensitive to moisture. 

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“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 from the University of Antwerp, 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.”


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While the painting had been kept in a protected storage area with controlled lighting and temperature, those factors were less important, the study found, than the relative humidity, which was about 50 percent. Ideally, the painting should be kept at 45 percent humidity or below — and at enough of a distance that the passing breath of viewers won’t affect it. 

“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," Janssens told The Guardian. 

The Munch Museum is currently closed to the public and will be moving to a new location later this year. Administrators told The Guardian they would take the recent findings into account when planning the painting’s display — ensuring that even the artwork practices social distancing. 


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Published on May 18, 2020