Thursday, June 26, 2008

In Living Color

I had not intended to write anymore about our vacation to Greece, but a serendipitous arrival of the Smithsonian magazine changed all that. Have you ever noticed how when you are thinking about something, you become hyper-aware of that topic?

Well, the Smithsonian magazine (one of my favorite mags) arrived yesterday featuring an article entitled "True Colors" about Vinzenz Brinkmann, an archeologist who has studied the wonderful Greek statuary so prominently displayed (now) in the British Museum, originally on the Parthenon. His conclusion: these statues which we see in lovely alabaster white were once in living color.

Who knew? Well, I am sure some of you did--those who are art experts. While I was vaguely aware that art historians had posited that the marble statues were once painted, I did not realize that someone like Brinkmann had done extensive work and could now suggest what the statues would have looked like. Using the tools of modern technology--UV light, cameras, high-intensity lamps--Brinkmann has recreated these jewels of antiquity. The results are shocking.

A marvelous article from the Washington Post helps explain my verdict of shocking. I laughed outright at the one quote from this article: "Can you imagine the family-values, back-to-basics, republican emperor Augustus . . . represented by something that looks like a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi?" So says Fabio Barry, an art historian at the University of St. Andrews. He begs to differ with Brinkmann. The controversy in the art world demonstrates the tug of war between two opposing views. One side presumes that statues were in pristine sparkling white; the other side premises that statues, while carved of white marble, were overlayed with brilliant colors.

Here's the recreated statue to which Barry refers--the "cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi":

Photo Credit: Vatican Museums Photo

At the heart of this controversy--were Greek (and Roman) statues originally colorized--is, in part, our present concept of what ancient sculpture looks like and SHOULD look like. We are all so schooled in a mental image imprinted since we first looked at ancient statues. They're white marble--right? And anything that alters that pre-conceived notions runs head-long into our mental template. NO NO NO--our brains scream, when presented with a colorized statue.

But I find the prospect intriguing. Frankly I find Brinkmann's arguments, and his research, persuasive.

Several years ago, we visited our daughter who was doing a semester abroad at University of Glasgow. We then traveled to London, and visited the British Museum, where we viewed the "Elgin Marbles"--the statuary that originally graced the Parthenon.

Now, I find the above work perfectly lovely, but how I see this statue is not the way the ancient Greeks would have seen it. They would have seen these larger than life statues in living color, high on a hill that could be seen from anywhere in ancient Athens. Imagine!

Photo credit and quote from magazine: "The painted replica of a c. 490 B.C. archer (at the Parthenon in Athens) testifies to German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann’s painstaking research into the ancient sculpture’s colors. The original statue came from the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina."
Stiftung Archäologie, Munich


Anonymous said...

Fascinating. Adds a whole new dimension to it. I saw the Elgin Marbles a few years ago -- I'm imagining the British Museum filled with those same statues in circus colors. Amazing mental image. :)

JeanMac said...

My mind only allows how your pictures show them!

NCmountainwoman said...

I had heard about the color quite some time ago. I saw the article and immediately thought of you and your visit to Greece.

There does indeed seem pretty convincing evidence that color was used on the pristine marble. I thought the coloring of Caligula somehow humanizes him while the white marble seems to better represent his dark sick side.

I suppose we must always keep an open mind about things we believe to be true.

JeanMac said...

Oooh, love the header!

Beverly said...

I never thought about color being used. I just figured that the marble was white and that's the way it was. I guess the phrase "I never thought" says it.