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Exhibition of polychromatic Greek sculpture replicas

Despite attempts to publicise the fact that most classical Greek sculptures were originally coloured [1], in the eyes of the public, they are still very much perceived as pristine & white. Nowhere has this problem of misconstrued opinion been more apparent, than in the 1930s cleaning of the Elgin Marbles [2] under the instruction of Lord Duveen.

A new exhibition in Germany hopes to change people’s understandings of the sculptures, with numerous coloured reconstructions to give people a better idea of how they might have originally looked.

Artdaily [3]

Friday, October 24, 2008
Gods in Color Opens at Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung

FRANKFURT.- Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung presents Gods in Color, on view through February 15, 2009. Antique marble sculpture was not white, but colored. This is amply and overwhelmingly attested to by ancient literary sources. Whereas the incontestable fact that ancient sculpture was colored was suppressed during the Italian Renaissance, it was recalled in the nineteenth century; in the twentieth century, it once again paled into insignificance, giving way to an aestheticism directed at clarity. Numerous traces of the original polychromy in antique sculpture have survived. They bear testimony to Greek and Roman statues having worn elaborately ornamented garments painted with precious pigments. For 25 years, an international team of scholars led by Vinzenz Brinkmann, head of the Collection of Antiques of the Liebieghaus, has been conducting research that has brought to light a multitude of new findings. The exhibition Gods in Color has resulted from this research project and has been displayed with great success in venues in Europe and the United States, including the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge. A considerably extended version of this show will now be presented in the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt. It juxtaposes some 70 originals – such as polychrome terracottas, marble statuary, and mummy portraits – with more than 30 spectacular reconstructions bringing “colorful antiquity” back to life. The highlight of the show in the Liebieghaus is a reconstruction of the so-called Persian Horseman from the Acropolis of Athens, whose colors have survived particularly well. It was especially made for the presentation in Frankfurt and will thus be shown for the first time.

This exhibition is mainly sponsored by the Bank of America and Skoda Auto Deutschland GmbH. Further support has come from Caparol Farben Lacke Bautenschutz, the FAZIT-Foundation and Karstadt Frankfurt-Zeil.

In fact, one has always been able to read about it: the great writers of Greek and Roman antiquity report quite unambiguously and matter-of-factly about polychrome figures. The tragedian Euripides (c. 480-406 BC) picked a colorless marble statue as the image of extraordinary ugliness. When the Trojan War was unleashed because of a woman’s beauty, Helen said to herself, “If I’d always been as ugly as a statue from which the color has been wiped off, all this suffering would not have been brought down upon men.” But many sources also testify to the fact that the subject of “colorful antiquity” used to be highly controversial in art history and archeology. In his History of Ancient Art, published in 1764, the famous German archeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) wrote, “A beautiful body will, accordingly, be the more beautiful the whiter it is,” thus establishing pure white as the beauty ideal of antiquity. Winckelmann’s views exercised a considerable influence on nineteenth-century art and have shaped our ideas of Greek and Roman art up to this day. Yet researchers were already able to discover distinct traces of pigments on numerous marble figures during excavations in Athens and Rome in the early nineteenth century. In 1812, the painter and sculptor Johann Martin von Wagner (1777-1858), art agent for the Bavarian crown prince and future king Louis I, traveled to Greece on the latter’s behalf in order to acquire the pedimental sculptures of the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina, which had been unearthed shortly before. He penned a description of the polychrome figures in 1815-16. However, in line with Winckelmann, he was rather shocked by and astonished at the “apparently bizarre taste,” which he considered as a “barbarian habit and remnant of earlier, primitive times.” But not only written documents attest to the painted decoration of ancient sculpture. Traces of earlier polychromy were also painstakingly captured in drawings and watercolors. The Swiss family of artists Gilliéron, living in Greece, was highly meritorious in this respect: starting around 1870, its members executed drawings of antique statues. The Liebieghaus fortunately owns a number of watercolors by Emile Gilliéron, which will be shown in the context of the present exhibition. Among architects, there were passionate devotees of antique polychromy as well: Gottfried Semper (1803-1879), who personally inspected colored buildings and works of sculpture during a journey through Italy and Greece between 1830 and 1833, became one of the most renowned advocates of pigmentation and had the rooms devoted to antiquity in the Japanese Palace in Dresden painted in bright colors. On behalf of his patron King Louis I, Leo von Klenze (1784-1864) conceived a multicolored interior decoration for the Glyptothek in Munich, referring to himself as “Your Majesty’s polychromatic secretary.”

The discussion about antiquity’s colorfulness was continued – fervidly, at times – until the outbreak of World War II, with the beauty of pure and reduced form increasingly asserting itself in the twentieth century. It was only in the 1960s that scientists, aided by new technologies, again started to explore polychromy. An international research team headed by Prof. Vinzenz Brinkmann has been examining and documenting the pigmentation of antique sculpture with the help of scientific methods for more than 25 years. If a little less than 200 years ago traces of paint were still analyzed by means of sampling, today most analyses can be carried out digitally. Owing to Raman spectroscopy and UV-vis absorption spectroscopy, numerous remains of pigment can be identified within a short time without touching the original. In addition, recent research has benefited considerably from the possibilities offered by technical photography, primarily UV fluorescence photography and UV reflectography, by which painted ornamentation can be made visible even in areas where no pigment has survived, due to chemical and mechanical transformations on the surface of the stone.

The exhibition at the Liebieghaus visually demonstrates the findings of scientific polychromy research for visitors by means of more than 30 detailed color reproductions and 70 selected original exhibits from international collections and the Liebieghaus’s own holdings, thereby illustrating impressively the significance of color for ancient sculpture.

Early Greek art from the so-called archaic period is essentially based on the achievements of Egyptian culture. In order to point out these parallels, the exhibition is introduced by a selection of multicolored Egyptian statues and reliefs from the rich holdings of the Liebieghaus. One of the show’s focal points is early Greek marble sculpture, characterized by particularly elaborate and superb ornamentation. Magnificently decorated colorful garments, weapons, and tools served to enhance the aesthetic and narrative expression of objects. One of the most prestigious examples is the figure of an archer – the Trojan prince Paris – from the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina. This richly painted figure is displayed together with the Greek goddess Athena and the Greek archer Teukros. No less impressive is the figure of the Persian Horseman from the Athenian Acropolis, staged in the Liebieghaus’s Tempietto. This early Greek work was scanned in a demanding 3-D process. On the basis of the data supplied, a full-size copy was made from a substance resembling marble (PMMA, crystalline acrylic glass). Analysis of the color measurement carried out with the aid of UV-vis absorption spectroscopy delivered a highly differentiated picture of the pigments used. Whereas precious bright colors had been employed for the equestrian figure’s elaborately decorated garment, the horse’s mane, coat, tail, and hooves had been done in more subdued, earthy tones. The so-called Peplos Kore, the most famous portrayal of a girl in early Greek art, was executed around 530-20 BC, thus dating from about the same period as the Persian Horseman. Traces of red, blue, yellow, and green pigments have survived in the hair, eyes, belt, and garment of the original figure, which was discovered in 1880. Recent examinations in extreme side light have revealed further painted decoration. Originally, the statue wore an additional ritual garment elaborately embroidered with animals – which is proof that the figure does not actually depict an ordinary young woman, but a goddess, probably Athena or Artemis. Thus a new and spectacular interpretation has been made possible through the examination of the pigments. Further works – such as the precious Alexander Sarcophagus from the Greek classical period or the impressive portrait of the Roman emperor Caligula from ancient Rome, with both the original and a reconstruction on display – have supplied scientists with numerous new insights into polychromy in the course of pigment analysis and now introduce visitors into the fascinating world of multicolored gods.

The exhibition Gods in Color forms part of the new initiatives launched for the Liebieghaus under director Max Hollein. Central concerns of this program not only include a fundamental reinstallation of the collection and a comprehensive new didactic approach, but also intensified exhibition activities devoted primarily to contextualizing the making and perception of sculpture and imparting knowledge about it.

This exhibition has been organized by the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in cooperation with the Stiftung Archäologie.

Curator: Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Brinkmann, Head of the Collection of Antiques, Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung. Exhibition architecture: Kuehn Malvezzi Architekten, Berlin. Further venue: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Museum Schloss Wilhelmshöhe, Antikensammlung, 6 March – 1 June 2009.

Catalogue: Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity, edited by Vinzenz Brinkmann. With contributions by Ursula Baumer, Vinzenz Brinkmann, Irene Fiedler, Ingeborg Kader, Sylvia Kellner, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, Jan Stubbe Østergaard, Heinrich Piening, Richard Posamentir, Oliver Primavesi, Heike Stege, Christina Vlassopoulou., ca. 280 p., with illustrations, German edition, 34,90 Euro, Verlag Biering, München, ISBN 3-9809701-6-7.