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9.12.03

Volcanic Atmosphere, not Existential Angst?

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893This will probably get major coverage in the blog world today, but there is a new theory about the inspiration for Edvard Munch's famous self-portrait The Scream, as explained by Leon Jaroff in an article (More Than a 'Scream': A Blast Felt Round the World, December 9) in the New York Times. If you don't have access to the Times Web site, you can also read this version of the article (Earthshaking inspiration?, December 9) for free from the International Herald Tribune. Dr. Donald Olson, an astronomer at Texas State University, and his colleagues believe that the colorful sky in Munch's expressionistic recollection of walking on a road near Christiania (now Oslo) at sunset in late 1883 (the work was not created until 1893) was the result of a natural disaster on the other side of the world. In an article to be published in the February 2004 issue of Sky & Telescope, Dr. Olson's group will be "the first to have made the connection between one of the world's most famous paintings and one of the world's greatest disasters," a cataclysmic volcanic explosion on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa in August 1883, which was so strong that the resulting tsunamis reportedly killed 36,000 people.

It lofted huge amounts of dust and gases high into the atmosphere, where they remained airborne and in the next several months spread over vast parts of the globe.

Dr. Olson's group scoured the literature and found a report on Krakatoa's effects issued by the Royal Society of London. One section was "Descriptions of the Unusual Twilight Glows in Various Parts of the World, in 1883-4."

Those "twilight glows" hardly went unnoticed in New York. On Nov. 28, 1883, The New York Times reported: "Soon after 5 o'clock the western horizon suddenly flamed into a brilliant scarlet, which crimsoned sky and clouds."

"Many thought that a great fire was in progress," it continued.

About the same time, similar phenomena began appearing in Norwegian twilight skies. Olson believes that Munch, too, must have been startled, even frightened, the first time he witnessed the fiery spectacle, probably in late 1883, nearly a decade before he produced "The Scream." No Munch journal entries have been found for that time.
You can read the press release (Astronomical Sleuths Link Krakatoa to Edvard Munch's Painting The Scream, December 9) about Olson's findings from Sky & Telescope. You can also read an advance copy of Olson's article (When the Sky Ran Red: The Story Behind The Scream, but you have to pay a fee. Prof. Olson, I'm proud to say, is an alumnus of Ionarts' beloved alma mater, Michigan State University.

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