Sunday, July 13, 2008

Greek Statues in Color

Seeing Greek and Roman statues painted up in bright colors may look a little bit unsettling at first, but archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann has made a convincing argument that they originally looked this way.

Garish? Gaudy? How could the same artists who carved those immortal forms prefer such a tacky treatment? If Brinkmann is right, we may have to revise our estimation of what constitutes good taste in sculpture.

Actually, the more I look at it, the more it makes sense. In fact I love it. Look out, Mount Rushmore, I’m on my way with my van full of spray cans.
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Smithsonian article, link.
Slide show of full-color restorations, link.
Boston.com article about traveling exhibition, link.
The standing figure is Augustus of Prima Porta. The Trojan archer is copyright Stiftung Archäologie, Munich

16 comments:

twilightcat said...

The Egyptians did the same thing. :) Since Egyptian culture heavily influenced Greek culture, it's not that surprising.

Drew said...

I remember my art history prof. showed us slides that were pretty close to this. Even though it does make sense, I guess I'm just too enamored by seeing the statues sans paint to actually want to see mock-ups with color. It takes away some of the muscle subtlety you see in a lot of those sculpts.

On the other hand, if the Greeks did paint up their sculptures, isn't it a funny thing that we today do pretty much all our sculptures without any sort of paint, as we were inspired by the Greek/Roman statues?

cegebe said...

In Euripides' tragedy about the beautiful Helena, she laments her own beauty that has caused so many troubles. She wishes that she could be made ugly - "as if one removed the colour from a statue" ...

The Danish sculptress Anne Marie Carl Nielsen made some copies of sculptures from the Acropolis during her stay in Athens in 1903 and painted them with what she imagined was the original colours. As far as I know, they were the first attempts to reconstruct the original appearance of ancient Greek sculpture.

Emily said...

Yeah, I always heard in art history classes that the Greeks and Romans had painted statues and that we were silly for always making white ones in imitation.

I think the white looks so much more interesting though.

Noadi said...

I wonder about the accuracy of these recreations. If you think of it the only traces of paint likely to survive are the base coats. I suspect that a people who could sculpt such lifelike figures in marble could also paint them to be more lifelike than the recreations show.

Don Hazeltine said...

I, too, have heard about the paint. But I would hope that anyone with the talent to create such a sculpture would at least have Frank Frazetta's color sense. Wouldn't that be something to see?

Eric Orchard said...

It has a very interesting flattening effect on art I've always thought of as very three dimensional.

Dianne Mize said...

Yeah, just yesterday I was reading about that in July Smithsonian. I think it's good for us to get our assumptions shaken. Look how we built an entire history on assuming that the Greeks allowed the marble to express the sculpture, then over 2000 years later we discover we've assumed an aesthetic that didn't exist. Sobering, isn't it. But I kinda like them, too, though I admit as a undergrad sculpture major, I was a marble purist.

Andrew Wales said...

Can you paint reptilian textures on Mount Rushmore?

If that's how the Greek sculpture looked, I think they have improved over time!

I had heard this before and I'm sure they're correct. Could the colors have had some more subtlety?

When they "cleaned" the Sistine chapel ceiling, did they clean away only dirt, or some paint too?

I guess we just get used to seeing things a certain way and it's jarring to think different about them.

cegebe said...

I, too, have this feeling that something doesn't quite work on these reconstructions. However, I think I've read somewhere about some ancient, textual source indicating that painting a statue was considered a real skill by itself. We shouldn't expect a modern reconstruction to match what they could do back then, as it, for obvious reason, can't be made by a experienced sculpture painter who have spent years of training in Pheidias' workshop ...

Micah said...

I wonder how coloring the statues would affect the solemnity of many museums, like the British Museum next to where I live.

marionros said...

That Greek and Roman statues were painted is a long-known (in Ancient History and Art History circles at least) fact. There are watercolour reproductions that go back a hundred years. They mostly show red and blue, however, because those colours were the last to erode. We now know that the Greeks and Romans used a lot more colours than that (including a shocking barbie-pink!) because we now can scrape of microscopic bits off statues and put them under a electron microscope.
I saw the exhibition of statues and other sculptures (steles - memoration stones - were painted as well) and was struck at how *right* the colours looked after a few minutes. The way, I suppose, technicolour film looked after seeing only black and white for your entire life (I remember when my mum and dad bought their first colour telly; my dad watched his first all-colour soccer match and I was shocked by the greenness of the grass!

The Greeks and the Romans were real people. Vibrant and argumentative and creative.

It was fun seeing the coloured reproductions, but those who prefer the white marble; no fear, they will always remain white. No conservator in his right mind would, nowadays, take a paintbrush to original Greek and Roman art. In the nineteenth century, people were a bit more cavalier with ancient art - they found painted statues and took a scrubbing brush to them to take all that 'ugly paint' off..

Michael said...

Ha, great post! I can't wait to see Rushmore in a myriad of gurneypaint!

doodle said...

Call me a conservative, but I still like the white ones much much better.

Was a fan of greek sculpture since middle school. I prefer the Dying Gaul to be unpainted, historical accuracy be damned.

poggy said...

Count me among those who already knew this from classes, but seeing the actual painted statues has a different impact! I think it's hard to say whether the oversaturated palette is accurate or not. @Andrew Wales who mentioned the Sistine Chapel - it's true that there has been controversy about whether some paint came away with the dirt (same for Leonardo's Last Supper in Milan), but it's also true that if you look at many contemporaries of Michelangelo - or at those that were directly influenced by him - you'll find a similarly acid, colorful palette. Think of Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo, for instance.

In a nutshell: it's hard to tell. The prblem is, we have little or no info on what was the Greek-Roman culture about color, having lost most of it.

philosopheer said...

Painted with expertise, the ancient Roman forum would have been breathtaking.