The Met exhibit brings back the color of ancient sculpture

In ancient Greece in 530 BC. Visitors to the tombs of a boy and girl would have gazed at the sky and seen a brightly painted sphinx on the 13-foot marble stele marking 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 museum’s sunlit halls – in a brilliant white. But a new exhibition Chroma: Ancient sculpture in color, shows the Sphinx in its original living form, one of 14 painted reconstructions 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 sculptures and pottery.

A painted sphinx once sat on the marble stele. (Photo Elaine Velie/hyperallergic)

chroma is the result of an extensive collaboration between restorers, scientists and curators who have contributed to the creation of the replica of the Sphinx. The other reconstructions in the exhibition are by Vinzenz Brinkmann, head of the antiquities collection at the Liebieghaus sculpture collection in Frankfurt, and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann. The couple have been dealing with polychromy for over 40 years. Her gods in color Exhibition has been touring since 2003 and its replicas have been included in museums around the world.

Rather than relegating the colorful reconstructions to a separate gallery space, the Met’s works are spread throughout the museum’s iconic ancient sculpture halls, with a small upstairs gallery dedicated solely to the exhibition. Throughout the exhibition, labels explain the scientific process used to determine the true color of the statuess.

Sarah Lepinski, Associate Curator in the Met’s Department of Greek and Roman Art, wanted the works to have a dialogue with the museum’s collection. Where possible, the replicas are displayed near comparable works (the originals are scattered in collections around the world). But in the case of the Sphinx, reproduction stands alongside reality.

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

The painted works are scattered throughout the Met’s ancient sculpture halls. (Photo Elaine Velie/hyperallergic)

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

Hemingway spoke of the dire implications of glossing over ancient art: A stunted understanding of ancient polychromy not only represents a version of history in which societies were more white-centric than they actually were, but it sets the classical ideal high as an aesthetic standard for art and also white.

“White supremacists have embraced 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 arguments out of what they want to believe. And then there’s all this evidence that shows sculptures were brightly painted, but they’re often not very well preserved.”

Hemingway said there was still a lot scientists didn’t know, adding that statues that spent time in Victorian collections are particularly difficult to reconstruct because they have been cleaned so extensively.

Brinkmann and Koch-Brinkmann use a mix 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 historical references to create a painted reconstruction of the ancient Greek archer. (Photo Elaine Velie/hyperallergic)

To determine the coloring of the ancient statues, Brinkmann and Koch-Brinkmann used both scientific methods and art historical research. For example, in their reconstruction of an ancient Greek statue of an archer, the two used ultraviolet and grazing light to determine the patterns originally painted on its surface, before using detailed technical photography to observe what remained of the archer’s colors had stayed.

Then they delved into art-historical clues: A well-preserved Persian horseman from the Acropolis in Athens helped Brinkmann and Koch-Brinkmann determine their archers’ range. Gold flecks were also added to the replica after the team examined Greek pottery and Scythian textiles that featured clothing patterns similar to the archer’s.

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 the Met)

Although Brinkmann and Koch-Brinkmann have been studying ancient polychromy for almost half a century, they were certainly not the first to observe it. In the small gallery upstairs dedicated to the exhibition, A stunning 1919 watercolor shows statues on the Acropolis in Athens at the time of their discovery and before exposure to the elements.

The watercolor begs the question: Why do these reproductions still seem out of place in the Met halls to some visitors when people have known about theirs Polychromy so long? With detailed scientific explanation and lifelike replicas, chroma leaves no doubt that ancient statues were painted. And maybe this major museum exhibition will finally change the way we think about ancient sculpture – not as pristine and white, but as colorful, vibrant artistic expressions.

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