“Few topics in the field of ancient art have generated such heated and protracted controversy as polychromy in Greek sculpture,” noted curator Gisela Richter in 1944, as he prepared visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the most shocking exhibition of the year. On the walls of the classical galleries, Richter hung a series of watercolor studies by a researcher named Lindsley F. Hall, each depicting a sculpture from the ancient Greek collections, delicately embellished with muted colors.
Nearly eighty years have passed since Richter’s exhibition. Scientific analysis has not only validated Richter and Hall’s work, but has also shown that the ancient color palette was considerably more daring than they could have imagined. Yet Richter’s statement, published in the April 1944 edition of the museum’s scientific publication, is Bulletincould be plausibly printed today, as the Met introduces a new generation in Greek polychromy met Chroma: ancient sculpture in color.
“Those guardians of good taste – intellectual people – they can’t handle it,” classical archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann recently told the TBEN. “The collision is too hard.”
Brinkmann and his wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, provided much of the scientific foundation for the Met exhibit. Their scientific and historical research has animated the field for the past four decades and has picked up where Richter and Hall left off by supplementing the science with life-size models showing what the ancient Greeks would have encountered on the agora or acropolis. Numerous examples in the classic galleries of the Met provide visitors with an experience that is both exciting and educational.
The display’s strength comes from its proximity to original masterpieces, most notably the Met’s perennially popular marble finial in the shape of a sphinx (which was also the subject of one of Hall’s 1944 watercolors). The Brinkmanns present a figure with brightly colored wings contrasted with the creamy skin tones of the creature’s human head, a juxtaposition of fantasy and realism that imbues the sphynx with magical properties lost through the fading of old paint. In the presence of the Brinkmann remake, we can look at the white marble surface of the original finial with a deeper understanding of the figure it represents.
However, there is also a reciprocal process that increases the appreciation of the worn original. As a sculpture, the childlike is arguably more attractive without color, as the lack of pigment allows the form to be admired without distraction. And the sphynx is arguably more attractive when so much is left to the imagination.
Instead of a clash we find complementary works, each of which is legitimate, the former rendered as the artists intended, the latter created coincidentally through the combination of artistic inspiration and uncontrolled obsolescence. The same can be said about countless other Greek statues recreated by the Brinkmanns. Bleaching is no different from breakage, which can also bring unintended beauty to works that were undoubtedly beautiful before they were damaged. The Venus de Milo must have been spectacular with arms and hands, but that doesn’t diminish the sculptural power of the broken version we have.
In terms of polychromy, the Metropolitan exhibition puts us in the enviable position of being able to go either way. The old controversy could be in the past, were it not for the fact that recognition of polychromy has turned into advocacy. The Brinkmanns illustrate this attitude with their ad hominem attack on ‘intellectuals’ and their retrograde taste. The media has reinforced their polarizing position with headlines worthy of tabloids. (The TBEN article is hyperbolically titled Chromophobia: The Greatest Conspiracy in Ancient Art.)
As magazines ranging from hyperallergic until The New York Times have noted, the whiteness of ancient Greek statuary has been weaponized by racists. “White supremacists have clung to this idea of white sculpture,” Met curator Seán Hemingway told hyperallergic when the exhibition opened. It goes without saying that such a distortion is regrettable. But this misbegotten “myth of whiteness” (to de Time) should not prevent us from admiring these works in their present form, any more than we should be prevented from appreciating Greek sculpture in general because some Greeks owned slaves.
In her 1944 article, Gisela Richter made one of the most balanced statements about polychromy in her attempt to explain the underlying cause of controversy. Noting that “the idea of painted statues somehow horrified people,” she concluded that “this strong bias was natural. Ever since the Renaissance, artists had been making white marble sculptures, oddly in imitation of the well-known Greek and Roman examples, which had lost their color over time.It was not easy to give up a belief that had been held for generations and, moreover, a new practice had begun; for before the Renaissance, colored sculpture has been the rule.”
If the great art of the Renaissance could have been inspired by the poor state of ancient antecedents, the impoverishment must be regarded as an asset. We are indeed impoverished if we side with the virtue of polychromy, just as we are impoverished if we categorically exclude any artistic style or genre. Ancient polychromy is a fact, as is the loss of color with age. It is up to us to take these facts to heart and turn to the art.