Met exhibition brings color back to ancient sculptures

In ancient Greece in 530 BCE, visitors to the tomb of a young boy and girl are said to have looked skyward and seen a brightly painted sphinx perched atop the 13-foot marble stele. which marked the children’s final resting place.

The stele and sphinx, on display as part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection, appear like the other sculptures in the sunlit rooms of the museum – dazzling white. But a new exhibition, Chroma: ancient sculpture in color, features the Sphinx in its original vibrant form, one of 14 painted recreations of ancient Greek and Roman statues. On view until March 23, 2023, Chroma also highlights 40 other objects that contextualize polychromy, the painting of ancient sculpture and pottery.

A painted sphinx sat atop the marble stele. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

Chroma is the result of an extensive collaboration between the curators, scientists and curators who helped create the replica of the Sphinx. The other reconstructions in the exhibition were made by Vinzenz Brinkmann, head of antiquities at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt, and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann. The husband and wife team has been studying polychromy for over 40 years. Their gods in color The exhibit has been on tour since 2003 and their replicas have been included in museums around the world.

Instead of relegating the colorful reconstructions to a separate gallery space, the Met’s works are interspersed with former halls of the museum’s iconic sculptures, with a small upstairs gallery dedicated entirely to the show. Throughout the exhibit, labels explain the scientific process for determining the true color of the statuess.

Sarah Lepinski, associate curator in the Department of Greek and Roman Art at the Met, wanted the works to dialogue with the museum’s collection. Whenever possible, replicas are exhibited near comparable works (the originals are scattered in collections around the world). But in the case of the sphinx, reproduction is adjacent to reality.

“We thought it would work better for understanding the pieces in their historical context,” Lepinski told Hyperallergic.

The painted works are scattered throughout the former sculpture rooms of the Met. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

This art historical context is extremely broad: curator Seán Hemingway told Hyperallergic that most ancient Greek and Roman statues have traces of their original polychromy and can be reconstructed in color. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, white marble was not considered the end product, but rather a blank canvas. So why do these bright, multicolored statues still shock us?

Hemingway spoke of the dark implications of the bleaching of ancient art: Not only does a stunted understanding of ancient polychromy present a version of history in which societies were more white-centric than they actually were, but it makes the classical ideal confirmed as an aesthetic norm. for art and beyond, also white.

“White supremacists have clung to this idea of ​​white sculpture – it’s not true but it serves their purposes,” Hemingway said. “There are people like that who make their own argument from what they want to believe. And then there’s all this evidence that shows the carvings were brightly painted, but they’re often not very well preserved.

Hemingway said there’s still a lot researchers don’t know, adding that statues that have spent time in Victorian collections are particularly difficult to reconstruct because they’ve been cleaned so intensively.

Brinkmann and Koch-Brinkmann use a mixture of scientific and art historical evidence to decide how to paint their reconstructions. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)
The Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung team used ultraviolet imagery, comparative photography and art history clues to create a painted reconstruction of the ancient Greek archer. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

To determine the coloration of ancient statues, Brinkmann and Koch-Brinkmann applied both scientific techniques and art historical research. In their reconstruction of an ancient Greek statue of an archer, for example, the duo used ultraviolet and grazing light to determine the patterns originally painted on its surface before employing detailed technical photography to observe what remained of the colors. of the archer.

Next, they delved into art historical clues: A well-preserved Persian horseman from the Acropolis in Athens helped Brinkmann and Koch-Brinkmann determine their archer’s palette. Gold spots were also placed on the replica after the team studied Greek pottery and Scythian textiles that bore similar clothing designs to the archer.

Emile Gilliéron, “Reproduction of The Introduction of Herakles into Olympos, second quarter of the 6th century BC” (1919), watercolor and graphite on paper, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Dodge Fund (image courtesy of Met )

Although Brinkmann and Koch-Brinkmann have been studying ancient polychromy for nearly half a century, they were certainly not the first to observe it. In the small gallery upstairs dedicated to the exhibition, a striking watercolor from 1919 depicts statues from the Acropolis of Athens at the time of their discovery and before they were exposed to the elements.

The watercolor begs the question: why do these reproductions still strike some visitors as out of place in the corridors of the Met when people have heard of their polychromy for so long? With in-depth scientific explanation and realistic replicas, Chroma leaves no doubt in the minds of visitors that ancient statues were painted. And perhaps this great museum exhibition will finally change the way we think of ancient sculpture – not as pristine and white, but as colorful and vibrant artistic expressions.

About Laurence Johnson

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