The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture
October 25, 2018 8:13 AM   Subscribe

The idea that the ancients disdained bright color is the most common misconception about Western aesthetics in the history of Western art. "He started poking around the depots and was astonished to find that many statues had flecks of color: red pigment on lips, black pigment on coils of hair, mirrorlike gilding on limbs. For centuries, archeologists and museum curators had been scrubbing away these traces of color before presenting statues and architectural reliefs to the public."
posted by automatronic (65 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
I've been getting into this in American history, too--the past was very bright! Thanks for the post.
posted by Melismata at 8:18 AM on October 25, 2018

An art historian quoted in the New Yorker article: “The various scholars reconstructing the polychromy of statuary always seemed to resort to the most saturated hue of the color they had detected, and I suspected that they even took a sort of iconoclastic pride in this—that the traditional idea of all-whiteness was so cherished that they were going to really make their point that it was colorful.”

About that. There are only a very few classical Greek paintings left, and those are in ill repair, but we know that they painted naturalistically and with a fine sense of shading. There is no reason to suppose that they liked their statues looking like medieval European wooden church statuary. They knew how to paint.

These images are Roman, from Pompeii, so we can only take them as a reflection of the skills and aesthetic used to paint Roman statues, but compare the treatment of the woman's hair with that of the archaeologists.

Also, why in the name of Jesus are these colorized statues always made the color of a Barbie, a GI Joe, or a lightly sunburned Australian? The ancients could blend and layer pigments, they were brown, and that's the way they painted themselves. Why is a myth of whiteness being replaced with a much less attractive myth of piggy-pinkness?
posted by ckridge at 8:39 AM on October 25, 2018 [71 favorites]

I wonder how much of the myth is itself a myth ie. a strawman set up here? I love reading historical mysteries and Lindsey Davis has a roman detective. The statues are coloured.
posted by infini at 8:47 AM on October 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

WRT Greeks and race, from the article:
Lately, this obscure academic debate about ancient sculpture has taken on an unexpected moral and political urgency. Last year, a University of Iowa classics professor, Sarah Bond, published two essays, one in the online arts journal Hyperallergic and one in Forbes, arguing that it was time we all accepted that ancient sculpture was not pure white—and neither were the people of the ancient world. One false notion, she said, had reinforced the other. For classical scholars, it is a given that the Roman Empire—which, at its height, stretched from North Africa to Scotland—was ethnically diverse. In the Forbes essay, Bond notes, “Although Romans generally differentiated people on their cultural and ethnic background rather than the color of their skin, ancient sources do occasionally mention skin tone and artists tried to convey the color of their flesh.” Depictions of darker skin can be seen on ancient vases, in small terra-cotta figures, and in the Fayum portraits, a remarkable trove of naturalistic paintings from the imperial Roman province of Egypt, which are among the few paintings on wood that survive from that period. These near-life-size portraits, which were painted on funerary objects, present their subjects with an array of skin tones, from olive green to deep brown, testifying to a complex intermingling of Greek, Roman, and local Egyptian populations. (The Fayum portraits have been widely dispersed among museums.)

Bond told me that she’d been moved to write her essays when a racist group, Identity Evropa, started putting up posters on college campuses, including Iowa’s, that presented classical white marble statues as emblems of white nationalism. After the publication of her essays, she received a stream of hate messages online. She is not the only classicist who has been targeted by the so-called alt-right. Some white supremacists have been drawn to classical studies out of a desire to affirm what they imagine to be an unblemished lineage of white Western culture extending back to ancient Greece. When they are told that their understanding of classical history is flawed, they often get testy.

Earlier this year, the BBC and Netflix broadcast “Troy: Fall of a City,” a miniseries in which the Homeric hero Achilles is played by a British actor of Ghanaian descent. The casting decision elicited a backlash in right-wing publications. Online commenters insisted that the “real” Achilles was blond-haired and blue-eyed, and that someone with skin as dark as the actor’s surely would have been a slave. It’s true that Homer describes the hair of Achilles as xanthos, a word often used to characterize objects that we would call yellow, but Achilles is fictional, so imaginative license in casting seems perfectly acceptable. Moreover, several scholars explained online that, though ancient Greeks and Romans certainly noticed skin color, they did not practice systematic racism. They owned slaves, but this population was drawn from a wide range of conquered peoples, including Gauls and Germans.

Nor did the Greeks conceive of race the way we do. Some of the ancients’ racial theories were derived from the Hippocratic idea of the humors. Rebecca Futo Kennedy, a classicist at Denison University, who writes on race and ethnicity, told me, “Cold weather made you stupid but also courageous, so that was what people from the Far North were supposed to be like. And the people they called Ethiopians were thought of as very smart but cowardly. It comes out of the medical tradition. In the North, you have plenty of thick blood. Whereas, in the South, you’re being desiccated by the sun, and you have to think about how to conserve your blood.” Pale skin on a woman was considered a sign of beauty and refinement, because it showed that she was privileged enough not to have to work outdoors. But a man with pale skin was considered unmasculine: bronzed skin was associated with the heroes who fought on battlefields and competed as athletes, naked, in amphitheatres.

In an essay for the online magazine Aeon, Tim Whitmarsh, a professor of Greek culture at the University of Cambridge, writes that the Greeks “would have been staggered” by the suggestion that they were “white.” Not only do our modern notions of race clash with the thinking of the ancient past; so do our terms for colors, as is clear to anyone who has tried to conceive what a “wine-dark sea” actually looked like. In the Odyssey, Whitmarsh points out, the goddess Athena is said to have restored Odysseus to godlike good looks in this way: “He became black-skinned again and the hairs became blue around his chin.” On the Web site Pharos, which was founded, last year, in part to counter white-supremacist interpretations of the ancient world, a recent essay notes, “Although there is a persistent, racist preference for lighter skin over darker skin in the contemporary world, the ancient Greeks considered darker skin” for men to be “more beautiful and a sign of physical and moral superiority.”
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:49 AM on October 25, 2018 [42 favorites]

I keep wondering why this makes headlines because I was literally (literally) taught this in primary school in rural Denmark some 30 years ago (and mine was a tiny primary school). "Now scholars are making a color correction." .. but I recall going to Copenhagen's Glyptotek when I was at university and seeing an exhibition about this. That would be 20-22 years ago.

And yet the painted Classical statues pop up as a news story every three years or so.

I think the real story here is about underfunding history education, so people are stuck with horribly out-of-date text books, and teachers not being able to access resources.
posted by kariebookish at 8:51 AM on October 25, 2018 [55 favorites]

I'd say we might need to keep an eye on this trend online to push "whiteness" stories... curating African news, I get to see the increase in levels of bullshit bandied about.
posted by infini at 9:04 AM on October 25, 2018 [9 favorites]

I keep wondering why this makes headlines

My guess is that it is because pretty much every contemporary statue in a public place that depicts figures is unpainted, although they are ostensibly inspired by/meant to evoke Classical Greek/Roman statues (and ideals). For most people in the West, statues are uniformly grey, and assumed to be depicting white people (unless it's a statue of, say, MLK, but he is still going to be stone grey). So seeing a painted Classical figure has the power to surprise people, again and again.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 9:04 AM on October 25, 2018 [7 favorites]

Yup, again true in American history. I know people who work in Plymouth, MA and have been complaining for 40 years that elementary school teachers, to this day, still teach the kids that the Pilgrims wore shiny black hats with buckles and had a big turkey on the first Thanksgiving. (They bashed their heads against the wall when the Disney Pocahontas movie came out.) History notions take a long, long time to change.
posted by Melismata at 9:05 AM on October 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

That's fascinating, thanks Halloween Jack for emphasizing that part.
posted by ITheCosmos at 9:07 AM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Abbe told me, “From basically 1960 to 2000, people were just, like, ‘Yeah, the color’s there, but you can’t do anything with it—there’s not enough there, it’s too fragmentary.’ ”

We've known for a long time that they were colored, it's just recently that we've gotten a good idea of how they were colored.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 9:12 AM on October 25, 2018

But wasn't this before the big black and white to color change over in the early 200th century? I understand that all those statues might have been in color, but who could tell since the world was still in the black and white?
posted by es_de_bah at 9:13 AM on October 25, 2018 [29 favorites]

I just finished reading Herodotus' Histories and I noticed something striking. He discusses many peoples from many regions, including what might have been "Pygmies" from the Niger Valley (though to Herodotus, they were hearsay from what he presumed to be the source of the Nile.) He discusses the skin colour, habits and dress of various peoples at length (including speculation that the black-skinned people of the Niger might have been coloured that way because of the sun.)

Nowhere in the Histories does Herodotus associate race or skin colour with sophistication or intelligence. He observes different levels of sophistication among political or cultural groups, but these seem to be entirely disassociated from race.

I'm not a historian, so I wondered if this was actually the case in Herodotus' time. Is racism a more recent invention?
posted by klanawa at 9:15 AM on October 25, 2018 [8 favorites]

The world is a complicated place, es_de_bah. Whenever it seems that way, I take a nap in a tree and wait for dinner.
posted by Melismata at 9:17 AM on October 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

I keep wondering why this makes headlines
I think it's because the white marble statues are a meme deeply ingrained in mainstream culture. It doesn't take a high bar for someone to know that they used to be painted, but lots of people with no specific interest in history nevertheless never clear that bar.

I mean, there are still people who believe that carrots make you see in the dark, that the Coriolis force makes bathtubs drain in opposite directions in different hemispheres, that old windows are thicker at the bottom because glass flows really slowly over time, etc..

(In some cases, depressingly, facts that are a matter of uncontroversial majority consensus can begin to be eroded away by new counterfactual memes because they're considered so uncontroversial that it isn't considered important to teach them in detail. Which is how we get antivaxxers and people who literally, unironically believe that the Earth is flat.)
posted by confluency at 9:21 AM on October 25, 2018 [18 favorites]

There’s a somewhat similar thing with English churches, although for different reasons: before the Reformation they would have been a riot of colour, with stained glass, wall paintings and coloured statues of saints. But the Protestants came along and ripped it all out or whitewashed over it. And although the modern C of E is much more relaxed about these things, our collective idea of what a church interior should look like has never quite recovered. So the country is full of medieval churches with stark white walls and plain dark wood.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 9:25 AM on October 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

Part of the resistance I think is because the quality of the restored coloration often simply isn't as good as that of the base sculptures: many of these restorations look like badly painted miniatures, where all the subtle details of the underlying form have been hidden by the thoughtless application of paint.
posted by Pyry at 9:35 AM on October 25, 2018 [8 favorites]

This piece makes great companion reading for the new game Assassin's Creed: Odyssey. That game has a loving recreation of much of Ancient Greece in 431 BCE where you run around and climb all the temples while murdering hundreds of Athenians and Spartans. Good fun. And lots of beautiful recreations.

Statues run the gamut. Some are fully painted marble, some partially painted, some fully plain white. Some are marble with bronze adornments, and some are fully bronze. Everything is quite colorful, fabrics and wall paintings too. I think they put some effort into accuracy. It sure makes for a nice experience while you run around solving Ancient Greece's dilemmas by murdering.

Truthfully the best part is the architecture and town layouts. Athens is marvelous, with the Acropolis high above. So is Corinth and the Acrocorinth. This morning I took an extra 5 minutes just walking from lower Corinth to the temple at the top, just to admire how logically and realistically stuff is laid out.
posted by Nelson at 9:37 AM on October 25, 2018 [24 favorites]

Interesting discussion of how race actually meant something very different to the Greeks. And I suppose it makes sense how deeply invested right-wing racists are in their version of classical civilization and thought, the source of all that white pride.

So if you're an ancient Greek statue, why are you white?
Oh my God, Karen, you can't just ask statues why they're white!

posted by Naberius at 9:42 AM on October 25, 2018 [10 favorites]

I'm not a historian, so I wondered if this was actually the case in Herodotus' time. Is racism a more recent invention?

I haven't looked into it in detailed, but my understanding is that this is generally true: that back then there was definite emphasis on what we might consider nationality or ethnicity, but no real sense of a racial classification that people with different ethnicities might share in common. It was the enlightenment and colonialism that really got that going.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 9:44 AM on October 25, 2018 [11 favorites]

Pffft. Next you'll be trying to convince me that ancient Greek women had actual arms.
posted by flabdablet at 9:48 AM on October 25, 2018 [20 favorites]

something something John Ruskin joke

I first heard about this when I was a child, and it blew my mind. I saw the "Gods in Color" exhibit last year, still blows my mind. Seeing the statues in color completely reframes the art -- and where they came from! All art should be blessed with such an easy way to switch one's perspective from "dead old history" to "vibrant, living culture." Honestly, there can never be too much attention on this.
posted by grandiloquiet at 10:03 AM on October 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

i too always noticed this bit of history always pops up regularly with the same breathless tone. still, why won't it be surprising? we've mentioned history in school, what about art education? just from a layman's pov, seems to be, modern art syllabus in classical western sculpture still teaches the bare uncovered media as the aesthetic ideal. so, even modern artists trained in the tradition don't pick up the paintbrush on their own newer works. i guess it doesn't show in the marking schema.
posted by cendawanita at 10:11 AM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I still don't understand why this is still considered a common misconception. Scholars have known about polychromy for ages. I know for a fact that it was being taught about in general-ed classics courses twenty years ago. I also know that lunatic white nationalists like to pretend it didn't happen, but that doesn't reflect what's being taught at all. It's always exciting to have more information on the phenomenon, so this particular find was a great one, but the framing is confusing to me.
posted by praemunire at 10:24 AM on October 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

I expect one of the reason the idea of unpainted statues holds on so well is because just about every statue since the renaissance or so IS supposed to be that way.
posted by ckape at 10:31 AM on October 25, 2018 [16 favorites]

Yes, neoclassicism crowds out actual classicism where artistic depictions are concerned, and it's artistic depiction -- not scholarship or even general education -- that shapes what we believe to be true.

It doesn't matter what's known, all that matters is what's shown.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:34 AM on October 25, 2018 [20 favorites]

I don't want to keep piling on the "we already knew this" angle, but my copy of Greek Art: Its Development, Character and Influence by RM Cook from 1972 says at the start of the section on sculpture "Greek sculpture was coloured."

It's sort of understandable that the general public thinks they were all white/marble coloured, but the graduate student at the start of the article thinking this in 2000 is... disappointing. I'm glad we know a lot more about the use of colour than we did when I was an undergraduate student of this in the late 80s, but this isn't a myth.
posted by YoungStencil at 10:47 AM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

I mean, decades after The Dinosaur Heresies you still sometimes get a whiff of surprise about the feathers and all.

Having read the article, I don't find it "breathless," and it makes quite clear that our understanding is evolving. The quote that sets up this post misplaces the emphasis of the article by treating part of the historical review as if it's the gist of the article. It would be as if I wrote an article about how powerful smart phone CPUs are these days, led with a brief anecdote about the first integrated circuits to show how far we've come, and y'all piled on with "har ... I had a pocket calculator in 1978! Somebody tell the LAMESTREAM MEDIA about these miraculous new COMPUTING MACHINES!"

More to the point, the article makes clear we've known since the early '60s that there was some color, the article illustrates that as recently as ten years ago some scholars were complaining that the colors some were choosing to recreate were "unduly lurid,"—"too gaudy or opaque"—and that some of these scholars remain convinced of that to this day. The article cites curators who report that visitors to exhibits with more accurate colors consider them "tasteless." The author herself talks about her own reaction to a more accurate recreation:
To my eye, the figure, which was painted and gilded in the two-thousands, looked awful: her golden robes had a blinding shimmer, her eyes were a doll-like blue, and her lips could have beckoned from a lipstick ad. It reminded me of a Jeff Koons piece that revels in its tackiness.
In other words, yeah, people have known about there being color for a long time, but are so, er, saturated with a false ideal that they balk when the colors seem 'too strong,' straying too far from that false ideal.

Maybe people with an art education will still maintain this is a big nothing-burger of an article, but it's a more nuanced piece than this post's setup quote—and some of you—are giving it credit for.
posted by mph at 11:15 AM on October 25, 2018 [14 favorites]

I thought the point about knowing that a particularly translucent marble was valued for sculpture was interesting -- some ways of making and layering paint are translucent, after all. As are flesh and skin and hair! There must be a few people trained as traditional fresco portraitists; I wonder what they would do with the statues.
posted by clew at 11:57 AM on October 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Is racism a more recent invention?

The histories I've read relate it to the rise of industrial scale slave trade out of Africa, and just around that time the colonizing started in earnest
posted by infini at 12:01 PM on October 25, 2018 [11 favorites]

re: the colours being tacky -- even that isn't a new fact in my recollection? Like, I swear I read about that last year, as there was an exhibition going around. TBH, what's more relevant in my reading is that this round it's not just about trying overcome aesthetic hangover popularised in victorian times, but just like other classicists, they're now having to defend against nazis and white supremacists. kinda like how recent articles on lactose tolerance came about, covering a very established fact just because racists don't understand anything.
posted by cendawanita at 12:13 PM on October 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yeah, lots more pandering to racism's delicate white feelings going on
posted by infini at 12:20 PM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

From Dr. Bond's twitter account:

"If you're a professor, please do not write to me to tell me that you already knew that statues were painted (& have so since you were a young scholar). Guess what? I didn't write those articles for you. Writing for the public means de-centering ourselves as the intended audience."

And as someone who works in a museum filled with nothing but artifacts from the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East, please believe me that 95% of the visitors I talk to in the museum have no idea these objects were once painted. And that's okay! And, honestly, my museum has zero label copy related to the original paint on these artifacts- we are part of the problem.

It would be really great if we could move on from these conversations about how disappointing it is that "people" (Who? Graduate students? Scholars? The "general public"? History of art students? Classicists?) don't know this stuff. The idea that everyone is supposed to remember random facts about ancient Greek art they learned in 9th grade or in college is just totally unrealistic. As a museum educator, I am dying for people to feel welcome to come into my museum to learn, experience, think, be, breathe, whatever. You don't need to have any preexisting knowledge before you come in- if we do our work well, the museum collection will be accessible to you physically, intellectually, and emotionally.
posted by Mouse Army at 12:40 PM on October 25, 2018 [60 favorites]

kariebookish: I keep wondering why this makes headlines because I was literally (literally) taught this in primary school in rural Denmark some 30 years ago (and mine was a tiny primary school)

Some polychromatic reconstructions (which I included in a recent post, where there were similar comments to the effect that "this isn't that new") were made from 2005-2016, and those are often what I found in semi-recent articles on the topic, so I imagine that having (crude*) visuals makes a more exciting article or news clip, rather than trying to focus on little hints of old, faded paint. Also, knowing statues were painted versus the more modern repainting is different also because of modern scanning techniques that can get a better idea of the original colors used.

* perhaps more due to the 3D renderings that look more akin to early 2000s computer models than what even smart phones can render live now.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:22 PM on October 25, 2018

I didn't say anything about its being disappointing. I just think that when this information has propagated itself to general-ed classes, it stops being a "surprising discovery." It's clickbaity and fatiguing. The New Yorker isn't exactly a scholarly journal, but it does presume an educated audience.
posted by praemunire at 1:22 PM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

I want to do a big monster movie where giant marble statues fight huge, green scaly T-Rex's with three toed hands, all above a clan of horned vikings battling with a horde of sword swinging Samurai. At one point, maybe a caveman riding a stegosaurus can joust with a Native American horseman brandishing a tomahawk and a feather head-dress.
posted by es_de_bah at 1:25 PM on October 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

I thought the point about knowing that a particularly translucent marble was valued for sculpture was interesting -- some ways of making and layering paint are translucent, after all.

Reading that bit made me think of subsurface scattering, which I remember being something of a breakthrough in rendering humans.
posted by ckape at 1:32 PM on October 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

On a more serious note, the interesting question to me is what folks understood about this during the Renaissance. Did Shakespeare imagine Caesar and Brutus in the same cold, hard, bloodless pale of the marble and then pass those ideas down to us. What about Voltaire? What about Poe, with his "pallid bust of Pallus?" That the Romans and Romans were a colorful bunch is one thing, but was that lost on the writers and the thinkers they inspired? How did they add to the myth?
posted by es_de_bah at 1:33 PM on October 25, 2018 [3 favorites]

There are only a very few classical Greek paintings left, and those are in ill repair, but we know that they painted naturalistically and with a fine sense of shading.

The gaudy restorations are probably working off some tiny, tiny flecks of a base coat. Take a look at this colored reproduction of the Burney Relief. Intense and artificial colour must have been a rarity in that culture, but to me that argues in favour of a more naturalistic palette, not against it. We don't know how the ancient Mesopotamians conceptualised colour, and it's certainly possible that this supernatural being was supposed to fluoresce like the paintings in an inferior carnival's House of Horrors, but given the care with which its features were otherwise depicted I can't believe that they went for such a clumsy and flat affect.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:42 PM on October 25, 2018 [7 favorites]

I can't help but think that even the best scholarly interpretations of what the colors were back in the BC era were are kind of at the ecce homo "restoration" level.
posted by grumpybear69 at 2:02 PM on October 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

decades after The Dinosaur Heresies you still sometimes get a whiff of surprise about the feathers and all

That's a good parallel, because it took quite a while before the art got to the point that feathered dinosaurs didn't look like diseased chickens.
posted by Pyry at 2:11 PM on October 25, 2018 [11 favorites]

Well, I think that's what ckridge and Joe in Australia are getting at. The scholarly reconstructions are naturally inclined to be somewhat conservative and stick to what can be definitively proven. They can prove what pigments were used, perhaps, and what pigments were used in which areas, but the fine details where true artistry lives are not "provable" with current techniques.

(That Burney Relief reconstruction looks bad, but most of the badness comes from being essentially a bad photoshop rather than a physical item. The same bright pigments actually painted onto a physical statue would probably look quite striking.)
posted by tobascodagama at 2:13 PM on October 25, 2018 [7 favorites]

It's been known that the temples and sculptures were painted since the 1830's, and back then the color was much better preserved than today. During the 19th century, there were many experiments with color in art and architecture, and some of them are beautiful.

I too agree that the problem with the reconstructions is that they are ugly and crude. They should get a really good artist to do one. Or a teenager who has watched 2000+ make-up tutorials.
posted by mumimor at 2:23 PM on October 25, 2018 [6 favorites]

Now I'm wondering if Nashville's reconstruction of the Parthenon, which is polychromed (as is the statue of Athena inside) was done during the construction of the current version (finished in 1931) or a later addition.
posted by Halloween Jack at 2:46 PM on October 25, 2018

During the 19th century, there were many experiments with color in art and architecture

During the Renaissance too, for that matter. Wikipedia's Neoclassicism article points out that it was difficult to get to Greece from Europe for much of the period, enough to affect the transmission of knowledge:
Even Greece was all-but-unvisited, a rough backwater of the Ottoman Empire, dangerous to explore, so Neoclassicists' appreciation of Greek architecture was mediated through drawings and engravings, which subtly smoothed and regularized, "corrected" and "restored" the monuments of Greece, not always consciously.
And the cheaper drawings and engravings don't have color. Coins and medals don't, afaik. Pottery was mostly two-color, so linear art instead of tinted? (Also wikipedia, "very simple line drawing (thought to be the purest classical medium)").
posted by clew at 3:02 PM on October 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

I found the article fascinating. And even though I already knew Greek statues were originally painted, the details about HOW they painted the marble and the dyes that were used was all new to me. I have to admit, I think the plain, white marble statues are exquisite in a way the painted statues are not. I think it's because the plain marble is less life-like. I think the plain marble, having fewer details, helps focus our attention on specific things like the perfect symmetry of the face. The generic quality of the unpainted marble face amplifies the beauty of the face. Once it's painted, with blonde hair and blue eyes, all you can see is that specific face. But the plain marble face, I can project my imagination on to it and the face then represents whoever I want. It's more engaging.

The issues with "white-washing" the real history of the statues is a frustrating situation. I wonder what our world today would be like if most of the marble available to the Greeks and Romans wasn't in fact white. What if all those statues had been carved from black, brown and red marble? What if we couldn't erase brown people from ancient art?
posted by pjsky at 3:58 PM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Green Caesar.

Basalt Caesar.

"Max Hollein noted that well into the twenty-first century, the idea of a ”pure, marble-white Antiquity” prevailed despite many hints that sculpture was often painted. One influential purveyor of this falsehood was Johann Joachim Winckelmann (d. 1768). His two volumes on the history of ancient art, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, were hugely popular in Europe and helped define art history as we know it today. They also perpetuated and further entrenched the idea that white marble statues like the famed Apollo of the Belvedere were the epitome of beauty."
posted by clavdivs at 4:00 PM on October 25, 2018 [4 favorites]

Can someone point me to the evidence for the Archer statue’s multicolored tights and patterned tunic? (I have to admit that I love the look!)
posted by monotreme at 4:23 PM on October 25, 2018

Were there actual tights like that, do you suppose, and how? Painted leather? Brocade but not on the bias? Knitted?
posted by clew at 5:12 PM on October 25, 2018

The typical line is that race didn’t exist in the modern conception back then, and it didn’t, but I’ve found some troublingly “modern” sounding racism in ancient writings. In one of the Satires, something about a cuckold’s wife coupling with an Ethiopian and giving birth to an Ethiopian child says something about his conception of blood and race.
posted by Sterros at 5:35 PM on October 25, 2018 [1 favorite]

Now I'm wondering if Nashville's reconstruction of the Parthenon, which is polychromed (as is the statue of Athena inside) was done during the construction of the current version (finished in 1931) or a later addition.

My memories are...dusty, but I think the Athena from 20 years ago looks roughly the same as the Athena they have now. It has a brassy art deco look, so that never surprised me.
posted by grandiloquiet at 6:58 PM on October 25, 2018

It's been pretty common knowledge that ancient classical statues were coloured since at least the 19th century, and resistance to the idea seems to be about as old, probably because of strength of the neoclassical idea in Europe. The first modern to produce a naturalistically-coloured marble statue was John Gibson's Tinted Venus of 1862, and critical responses to it were mixed, to say the least.

Some non-European statues, commonly known as being uncoloured, were also originally painted. The British Museum's exhibition of the Chinese terracotta warriors a few years ago included a replica of one of the figures with a version of the original colours. They were very bright and it looked to me rather like a very large garden gnome.

I do wonder if the very bright colours on some interpretations of painted sculpture look bad to our eyes because they are badly done, or because they are accurate but we don't have the taste for very vivid colour that people did in the past when bright pigments and dyes were much more expensive and hard to come by.
posted by Fuchsoid at 8:41 PM on October 25, 2018 [5 favorites]

Also bear in mind that once our civilization collapses and the soil caps over all our landfills are blown away by supertornadoes, the sun will bleach out all the exposed cereal boxes and future mutants will assume all our beloved children's breakfast cereal mascots were also uncolored.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 9:27 PM on October 25, 2018 [10 favorites]

Anyone else think Green Caesar looks like Vladimir Putin?
posted by Big Al 8000 at 10:03 PM on October 25, 2018

I liked ckridge's comment: the statues were definitely painted, but it's hard to believe the brown-skinned people who did layered, delicately shaded paintings also did statues with uniform-bright-pink faces.

Also they transported good white marble from some distance for their statues, it seems unlikely to me that they would completely cover them in opaque paint: why not use local stone or wood if nobody's going to see the surface? There must surely have been sections left unpainted, or translucency effects where the bright marble shines through a subtle tint.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:31 AM on October 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

Another thought about the use of non-painted statues is that it is and was a way of de-sexualizing the statues. A white marble nude signifies art, not porn. The ancient Greeks were casual about male nudity and repressive of female nudity. A lot of Greek art depicts nude males but clothed females if it was meant for public display. So, if you're looking a nude female classical statue, you may be looking at the equivalent of the topless calendars in the back of a car workshop today (or 20 years ago): something erotic meant for a men-only space. Keeping the status unpainted makes both the ancient Greeks and modern art-lovers seem more high-minded than they really were/are.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:11 AM on October 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

I was lucky enough to have viewed the Elgin Marbles when they were at The Met. The way they lit them, it was like the light came shining out from within them. Each piece has a security officer because patrons couldn't help themselves from reaching out a single finger to tough a fabric fold or bare skin because our eyes played tricks and the statues seem to be breathing and rustling with tiny movements.

I have never seen something so beautiful. And to know they were carefully painted to look even more alive and beautiful makes me feel cheated. Like catching angels out of the corner of my eye.

I wish I could see one in person properly restored just once.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 5:14 AM on October 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

Oof, a lot of those look a lot better just in white marble.
posted by lstanley at 6:10 AM on October 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm not convinced about Winckelmann being about to change his mind about colour on statues. I know that he was not the only one talking about ancient art, not operating in a cultural vacuum etc, but it really does feel like this bias is at is base due to Winckelmann's preferred wanking material. He made his preferences pretty clear, and when contemporaries made a fake to try and discredit him, they made something that they knew would catch his attention - the Zeus and Ganymede fresco. That fresco is full colour, but Ganymede is all milky white skin in the middle of it. My suspicion is that if he'd preferred his muscular naked young men tanned we wouldn't have had half the problems we've had accepting painted statues (I mean, I think we'd have some of them, because Massive Racism, but I think it might have been less pronounced).
posted by Vortisaur at 7:55 AM on October 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

I too agree that the problem with the reconstructions is that they are ugly and crude. They should get a really good artist to do one. Or a teenager who has watched 2000+ make-up tutorials.

Alternately, find a local hobby games shop. I guarantee you there's 14 year olds playing e.g Warhammer 40k who know more about how to properly color and shade a (tiny) statue than some of the people who have done these recreations (though they'd probably also try to put enormous shoulder pauldrons on them).
posted by tocts at 8:04 AM on October 26, 2018 [5 favorites]

In the grim darkness of the far future, the statues are all painted but you can't see their necks.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:24 AM on October 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Yeah, this keeps popping up. I was told that greek statues were painted almost 20 years ago in an introductory art history class. Why is this news?
posted by runcibleshaw at 9:01 PM on October 26, 2018

It's news basically because there's a big exhibit, and the exhibit is in part I believe because scientists have gotten better at the analysis of residues and can say with more confidence what the actual colors were.

Since I find the painted recreations about as inspiring as a fiberglass Paul Bunyan statue in front of a comfort food restaurant it makes sense to me people talking about it are saying this is a new discovery instead of claiming it's enlightening or interesting. (There's also not much of interest for the layman in terms of history. "They had paint, and used it!" isn't making me re-evaluate the Hellenic culture. Attempts to tie it to race or racist interpretations of marble seem like another attempt to make this worth talking about, though for me the most interesting thing in the article was the suggestion that the things are ugly because they are plaster and don't display the paint well.)

My father, who is travelling a lot in his retirement (which is cool) has been to the exhibit twice and finds it really fascinating for reasons he hasn't been able to communicate, so I've been subjected to pictures and discussion of the damn things off and on for the last three years.
posted by mark k at 11:13 PM on October 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

I recently did a tour of Olympia and Delphi (and, less relevantly, Corinth and Mycynae) and I can't help but feel that part of the issue is that we're trying to recreate the works of tremendous artists without having the chops and/or complete knowledge regarding pigments.

That said, Minoan coloured art is beautiful, so I'm more inclined to think that our classical colour reproductions are lacking rather than simply a matter of taste due to familiarity.
posted by ersatz at 1:48 AM on October 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I always assumed that part of the reason the coloured reconstructions of classical statues were so clunky was from a kind of academic conservatism: not wanting to go beyond what we actually know into speculation. Rather like the idea that if you have a partially reconstructed artefact on display, the modern parts should be visibly different from the original parts; plus the fact that any kind of stylistic choice would imply more knowledge than we actually have.

But it would be an interesting documentary project to make a marble statue, make paints based on the best knowledge we have about ancient pigments, and get some skilled artists to make various attempts at colouring it to see what effects were possible. You could use whatever ancient models are available — Egyptian mummy portraits, for example — but also just let the painters have a go and see what they can do. What you can’t do is claim it's what a Greek statue would have looked like.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 2:08 AM on October 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

« Older The Halibut Hook Revival   |   The library was a map of my life as a reader, and... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments