Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The True Colors of Classical Sculpture

Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends, 1868, (72 x 110.5 cm) Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, UK.
 Continuing the theme of the previous entry a bit, here are some fascinating images created by the German archeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann and his research team. (For more on Brinkmann and his techniques see this 2008 article in the Smithsonian Magazine and a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal.) Brinkmann, the former director of the Gylptothek Museum in Munich, carefully analyzes the surface residue of pigments on classical sculptures and then uses this evidence to extrapolate how these works may have originally appeared. The results are, to say the least, surprising:

The Alexander Sarcophagus, 320 BC, as it appears today.
Brinkmann's reconstruction of how it originally appeared.
Trojan archer (490-480 B.C.), from the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island Aegina.
Brinkmann's reconstruction.
Another example from the Temple of Aphaia.
Now, as the painting that leads off this entry shows, people had known since at least the nineteenth century that pieces such as the Parthenon frieze once bore heavy pigmentation. But these images are the most complete reconstruction of this painting I've seen so far, and their garishness is almost shocking to a modern eye. As Brinkmann argues in the WSJ article linked above, twentieth century modernism has taught us to glorify the purity, simplicity and blankness of unadorned surfaces -- to which I would add that (in this respect, at least) modernism was taking a cue from the stark Neoclassicism of the Napoleonic era. What's more, Brinkmann notes, the substance of marble itself has an innate appeal:
"In modern times," he explains, "marble has been prized for its surface effect. Sculptors in antiquity knew it as the material that would allow them to do exactly what they wanted. They thought about it as filmmakers today think about their cameras. You got what you paid for. You ordered a block of Parian marble -- the best there is -- and you paid a fortune. But once it was delivered, you could relax. Because in those 12 cubic meters there would never be a fault or a flaw. If the sculptor wanted to make a fold a meter long, he could do it. In limestone, he'd run into a shell or a bump or a hole. The crystal structure of marble is absolutely pure and even. It's the most homogeneous natural material in the world. It's a gift from God. It's perfection."
How strange, one might interject, that ancient sculptors thought it fitting to smother this crystalline perfection in flashy orange, yellow and periwinkle hues! But this is a fabulous example of how easy it is to interpose contemporary intentions, values and aesthetics onto the past. Raised in a society that equates the simple, unadorned beauty of pure white marble with both high art and the edifices that represent both the state and the sacred, we find it hard to grapple with the garish Technicolor of classical sculpture. To me, though, the playful aesthetic sensibility that the work of Brinkmann has revealed actually jibes far better with what we know of ancient Greek culture than the dreary and bland white marble edifices that we find reproduced throughout the cultural centers of the Western world.


  1. Fantastic job, when I admire an sculture always I wonder what originally colours were sustained.

  2. looking "Another example from the Temple of Aphaia." photo now i have clear about inspiration in Avatar movie!! On the other hand I get the feeling that color and polychrome are so strong, probably it is my 21st century point of view but it is like "less sacred,less holy" and more mundane? With all my respect Brinkmann's reconstruction seem a man from Gay Parade!!


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