“There are few subjects in the field of ancient art that have aroused such heated and prolonged controversy as polychromy in Greek sculpture,” observed the curator Gisela Richter in 1944, preparing 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 set of watercolor studies by a research fellow named Lindsley F. Hall, each depicting a sculpture from the ancient Greek collections subtlely embellished with muted colors.
Nearly eighty years have passed since Richter’s exhibition. Scientific analysis has not only validated the work of Richter and Hall but shown that the ancient color palette was considerably bolder than either dared imagine. Yet Richter’s statement, published in the April 1944 edition of the museum’s scholarly Bulletin, could plausibly be printed today as the Met introduces a new generation to Greek polychromy with Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color.
“Those guardians of good taste – intellectual people – they can’t manage it,” the classical archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann recently told the BBC. “The clash is too hard.”
Brinkmann and his wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, have provided much of the scholarly groundwork for the Met exhibition. Their scientific and historical research have animated the field for the past four decades, taking up where Richter and Hall left off by supplementing scholarship with life-size models that show what ancient Greeks might have encountered at the agora or acropolis. Numerous examples in the Met’s classical galleries provide visitors with an experience that is as electrifying as it is educational.
The power of the display derives from the proximity of original masterpieces, most notably the Met’s perennially popular marble finial in the form of a sphinx (which was also the subject of one of Hall’s 1944 watercolors). The Brinkmanns present a figure with brightly-colored wings in contrast with the creamy flesh tones of the creature’s human head, a juxtaposition of fantasy and realism that imbues the sphynx with magical qualities that have been lost with the fading of ancient paint. In the presence of the Brinkmann remake, we can look at the white marble surface of the original finial with deeper comprehension of the figure it represents.
However there is also a reciprocal process by which appreciation of the timeworn original is enhanced. As sculpture, the filial is arguably more compelling without color, because the lack of pigment allows the form to be admired without distraction. And the sphynx is arguably more beguiling when so much is left to the imagination.
Instead of a clash, we find complementary works, each of which is legitimate, the former represented as the artists intended, the latter serendipitously created by the combination of artistic inspiration and uncontrolled aging. The same can be said about myriad other Greek statues recreated by the Brinkmanns. The bleaching is not unlike 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 detract from the sculptural power of the fractured version we have.
In the domain of polychromy, the Metropolitan exhibition puts us in the enviable position of having it both ways. The old controversy could be set in the past, were it not for the fact that recognition of polychromy has been turned into advocacy. The Brinkmanns exemplify this attitude with their ad hominem attack on “intellectuals” and their retrograde taste. The media has amplified their polarizing position with headlines worthy of tabloids. (The BBC article is hyperbolically titled Chromophobia: The Greatest Conspiracy in Ancient Art.)
As periodicals ranging from Hyperallergic to The New York Times have noted, the whiteness of ancient Greek statuary has been weaponized by racists. “White supremacists have latched onto this idea of white sculpture,” the Met curator Seán Hemingway told Hyperallergic when the exhibition opened. Needless to say, such distortion is deplorable. But this misbegotten “myth of whiteness” (to quote the Times) need not prevent us from admiring these works in their present form, any more than we should be prevented from appreciating Greek statuary in general because some Greeks owned slaves.
In her 1944 article, Gisela Richter made one of the most balanced statements about polychromy in her effort to explain the underlying cause of controversy. Noting that “the idea of painted statues somehow filled people with horror,” she concluded that “this strong prejudice was of course natural. Ever since the Renaissance, artists had produced white marble sculpture, in imitation, oddly enough, of the Greek and Roman examples known to them, which in the course of time had lost their coloring. It was not easy to give up a belief that had been held for generations and one that had, moreover, started a new practice; for previous to the Renaissance colored sculpture had been the rule.”
If the great art of the Renaissance could be inspired by the poor condition of ancient antecedents, the impoverishment must be counted as an asset. Indeed, we’re impoverished when we take sides about the virtue of polychromy, just as we’re impoverished when we rule out any artistic style or genre categorically. Ancient polychromy is a fact, as is the loss of color with age. It’s up to us to take these facts in stride and step up to the art.