Edvard Munch’s paint tubes and working materials

In the Munch Museum's storage rooms is a large collection of Edvard Munch's art tools and materials consisting among other things of palettes, brushes, binding agents, chalk, crayons, pencils and 1 400 tubes of paint. In the autumn of 2014 the museum's conservation department began registering and documenting each of the items, in addition to analysing the contents of the paint tubes. The aim of the project is to gain new knowledge about Munch's materials and painting techniques, as well as the aging properties of the materials.

During the period 2009–11 the museum's conservation department carried out a collaborative project with the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo. The project, which produced analysis results of a selection of paint tubes, resulted in an article entitled "Exploring an artist's practice: Edvard Munch's paint tubes», which was published in the book The Artist's Process: Technology and Interpretation (2012). In the autumn of 2014 the conservation department has been able to continue working with the contents of the paint tubes as they have now acquired instruments that allow them to analyse the contents. The project is complex and divided into several phases.

In the first phase all of the photographic and written documentation about the materials that already exists, but which is incomplete, will be reviewed. At the same time every single item will be registered and photographed. In the next phase micro-samples will be taken of all of the paint tubes. The intention is to analyse all of the samples with the spectroscopic methods that are now available at the museum.

The paint tubes include a number of different brands, and some of them are no longer in production. We will analyse the binding agents, pigments and additive products contained in the tubes, all of which have great significance for the paint's physical qualities. The binding agents in particular affect the optical appearance of the paint, its behaviour when being applied to a support, and not least its aging properties. There is abundant documentation about when the various types of paint were manufactured and became available on the market. During the period 1856–1930, i.e. the period when Munch's paint tubes stem from, a number of new pigments and materials were developed. Information of this kind, and analysis results of the contents of the tubes are important tools for answering questions about authenticity and dating.

Alongside analyses of the original material, we will build up an index of references. References in this context are materials having a known chemical composition, which are run through all of the analysis instruments. The references will be used in comparative analyses with the original materials, such as the paint tubes, for instance, in order to simplify the interpretation of these.

In the final phase we will build up a database for use in the future research on Munch's painting techniques, material use and degradation phenomena in the works of art. The analysis results will also be available upon request to researchers outside the museum, artists, students and other interested parties.

The project is a major contribution to the museum's work in preserving and developing new knowledge about Munch's materials and material use in order to conserve the art collection in the best possible way. Building up an index of references alongside of chemical analyses of original materials is essential for answering questions about the state of the collection. Increased knowledge about continuous chemical and physical degradation in the paintings is a precondition for being able to develop more "tailored" conservation measures, and greater knowledge about the original materials and painting techniques will also be an increasingly more important tool with regard to determining authenticity and the dating of the artworks.