Scholars have long known that the ancients painted and gilded their statues, and embedded metals, precious stones, and other materials to make them appear more lifelike. But the belief that ancient sculpture was monochromatic – white as marble or evenly patinated bronze – remains more enduring and persistent than science.
In its new exhibition, the Met defies general resistance and uses speculative reconstructions by Vinzenz Brinkmann and his wife Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Frankfurt scholars who have specialized in the study of so-called polychromy. These include a painted reconstruction of the Met’s 6th-century BC marble Sphinx Cross. B.C., in which the wings are red and blue with gilded feathers, the tail is dipped in blue, and the neck is adorned with a red and gold collar.
The Met contemplates the body bereft of its wisdom
The colored works are composed of contemporary materials, including plaster casts, synthetic marble, marble, cast bronze and 3D-printed polymethyl methacrylate, covered with marble plaster and painted in tempera with pigments according to original recipes. The earliest work rendered in color is a Cycladic figure with an oversized head connected to an abstracted body, now with a small vermilion triangle to create a rictus of red lips, dots on the cheeks and raised eyebrows. Since the early 20th century, Cycladic figures have held an iconic power for contemporary artists as an ancient prefiguration of abstraction. They seemed to capture something primitive or dreamlike, Jungian archetypes and Freudian psychic energies, inspiring new ways to distort and reconfigure the human form.
In the colored version of the Cycladic figure, these minimal facial details fight against abstraction. You can feel it looks like cartoon. It also leaves an eerie feeling that the character has awakened from a long sleep, keenly aware that you are watching her first flare of consciousness.
The exhibition also includes archaic and classical Greek statues, Hellenistic figures, and Roman portraits and bronzes. But regardless of style or era, it’s the eyes that cause the most discomfort. In the works that seem most lifelike to our sensibilities – the classical Greek, Hellenistic and Roman figures – the eyes feel roughly processed. Even in the archaic sphinx pommel, they disturb our sense of a stylized figure. The eyes connect the character more to the world of wax figures and animatronic figures, contemporary forms of mimesis that seem too eager to please, too urgent in their efforts to pretend to us that they’re real.
The eyes take on a supernatural power when two figures are brought together in an ensemble, particularly the two pugilists, part of a group commonly known as the ‘Terme Rulers’ and ‘Terme Boxers’, discovered in Rome in 1885 , stare at it exhausted. The reconstruction of these bronze figures uses different metal alloys and other materials to suggest bruises, swollen lips, wounds and blood, and patination to make the bronze skin more lifelike. It also uses polished gems for the eyes, which now stare with blazing hatred.
Making a bronze statue of this size and level of detail is already an amazing achievement, even before you add the extra color details. But the modern viewer may be torn between admiration for the basic bronze figures and feeling that the coloring adds unwanted psychological specificity, making their emotions explicit and overly surfacing a blunt sense of their inner workings.
The challenge of this exhibition is our own resistance and understanding the roots of this resistance. The supposed whiteness of ancient statues is intertwined with larger notions of whiteness in European culture, and the sense that tinting the statues somehow cheapens them may well be rooted in racist thinking. The colored statues also appear “new” in the sense that they have just been pressed or stamped through a modern industrial process and therefore lack the supposed authenticity of truly ancient things.
But our resistance is not always irrational or rooted in harmful ideas. Sometimes it’s just a matter of luggage. All the colored statues are interpretations of how the polychrome scholars believe they might have looked. And small, subjective decisions can create unwanted or unexpected ideas in the viewer’s mind.
Take, for example, a statue known as the “Little Herculaneum Woman,” a graceful figure whose gesture of wrapping a cloak around her torso evokes an elegant sense of swaying and movement. In the colorized version, the coat is a translucent light green fabric through which the pink of her dress is clearly visible. It is a bold interpretation and almost miraculously makes the hard material appear transparent. But the specifics of this pink and green and the apparent toughness of the material are cheaply coded to contemporary eyes, more like fabrics meant to be seen on stage than up close on the red carpet.
It’s also possible that the ancients were simply wrong about their use of color, and that these statues got better as the colors faded or were worn away. Of course, we are under no obligation to view these statues in color as long as we honestly acknowledge their longer history and original appearance as material facts. And notions of authenticity are always tricky. The one thing we can never know is whether our ideas about color bear any relation to how color was perceived when these works were new.
Indeed, when the ancients from Homer and Parmenides to Plato and Aristotle wrote about color, their terminology often seems downright alien. Was the wine-dark sea really the color of a fine Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or did it refer to gloss or shine or some other visual quality? Nietzsche was convinced that the ancient Greeks could not see blue or green and lived in a world of black, white, red and yellow.
It’s also possible that the original figures were intended to be shocking, and our own sense of shock is an analogue of how they were perceived thousands of years ago. We are surprised because they seem foreign to our taste buds and maybe even a bit vulgar. The antiquity’s sense of surprise may not have been less strong, if different: they were shockingly not of the real world, more real or surreal, in a way that elevated them above the ordinary palette of existence. In the case of mythical figures or gods and goddesses, this aesthetic makes perfect sense.
So “Chroma” is unsettling – in all the right ways. It challenges us to fundamentally reinvent our sense of the ancient world. It’s always worth an effort. After you’ve made it, you’re free to indulge in the ancient works as you please.
Chroma: Ancient sculpture in color Until March 26 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. metmuseum.org.