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Why the sky was red in Munch’s ‘The Scream’


CNN (12/10/2003)

The Krakatoa eruption created vivid red twilights in Europe at the time Munch is thought to have painted this masterpiece.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) — For those who have ever wondered why the sky was a lurid red in “The Scream”— Edvard Munch's painting of modern angst — astronomers have an answer. They blame it on a volcanic eruption half a world away.

In the first detailed analysis of what inspired the painting, an article published Tuesday in Sky and Telescope pinpointed the location in Norway where Munch and his friends were walking when the artist saw the blood-red sky depicted in the 1893 painting, and offered an explanation for why the sky seemed to be aflame.

Donald Olson, a physics and astronomy professor at Texas State University, and his colleagues determined that debris thrown into the atmosphere by the great eruption at the island of Krakatoa, in modern Indonesia, created vivid red twilights in Europe from November 1883 through February 1884.

The local newspaper in what is now Oslo reported that the phenomenon was widely seen, the astronomers said.

Olson and his colleagues suggest that Munch drew his inspiration for the sky in the painting from these volcanic twilights, and not from his own imagination.

The most famous version of “The Scream” was painted in 1893 as part of “The Frieze of Life,” a group of works derived by Munch's personal experiences, including the deaths of his mother in 1868 and his sister in 1877. These works were created in the 1890s, but have established origins in earlier decades.

To reach their conclusion, the astronomers determined Munch's vantage point in the painting.

“One of the high points of our research trip to Oslo came when we rounded a bend in the road and realized we were standing in the exact spot where Munch had been 120 years ago,“ Olson recalled in a statement.

“It was very satisfying to stand in the exact spot where an artist had his experience,” he said. “The real importance of finding the location, though, was to determine the direction of view in the painting. We could see that Munch was looking to the southwest — exactly where the Krakatoa twilights appeared in the winter of 1883-84.”