Save the Stains?

Years of exposure to the elements is putting Munch’s paintings at risk

Late in the 19th century, many artists brought their easels outdoors in an attempt to paint natural light. Edvard Munch even built several outdoor studios. There, he created hundreds of paintings—some of which he left outside for years at a time. Many of these works have begun to deteriorate, or break down, because of this exposure to the elements. Conservators now debate whether the artworks should be restored or left in their natural—but damaged—state. 

When exposed to sunlight, pollution, and extreme changes in moisture and temperature, paint becomes brittle and unstable. The paint is cracking and chipping off of some of Munch’s canvases. Water stains, mold, dirt—and even bird droppings—are also harming the works.

Frøken Henriette Homanns Legat (Berg-Kragerø Museum)

Many art experts believe restoration is needed. They say this will protect Munch’s works from further damage and return them to a state closer to what they were when the artist was alive.

Others wonder if restoring the paintings would affect the works’ authenticity. Traditional conservation methods, such as adding glossy varnish to preserve paint layers, could alter the works’ matte finish. They also argue that a work of art is a historical document. They feel the damage to Munch’s paintings tells a story about how the artist created and handled his works.

So far, conservators have adopted a policy of “minimal intervention,” keeping the paintings as close to their current state as possible. What do you think: Should naturally occurring damage to paintings be fixed? 

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