The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

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FEB 2023 Issue

Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color

Installation view: <em>Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color</em>, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2023. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Installation view: Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2023. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

On View
Metropolitan Museum Of Art
Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color
July 5, 2022–March 26, 2023
New York

In New York this new year, the exhibition with the most argument, conjecture, and consequence is the Metropolitan Museum’s Chroma. This somewhat sly intervention means to reintroduce the presence of color in classical art. Which inadvertently brings up, although it is not discussed, the vulgarity of the ancients. Some authorities are seriously concerned about what we will think, if we ever find out about it. Color is the supposed flashpoint. The exhibition presumes “we” don’t know that the ancients painted marble. Who is responsible for that? We (the public) and they (scholars, critics, curators, administrators) are unnamed parties in an uncertain historiological relationship—what did we know, and when should we have known it?

Plenty to think about here. Color might be the least of it. The smoldering issues are only the more complex because the Museum cannot help but land on all sides of the problems and give evidence that flatly denies both our received ideas and its own brief.

Among the originals of the Greek and Roman Department, Chroma distributes actual-size, “experimental reconstructions” of Greek and Roman statuary in marble and bronze, in colors and finishes recently analyzed from the originals. It should be noted that quite a number of scholars are working independently on ancient color, but the Liebieghaus, in Frankfurt, lent all the replicas here and supplied a number of the related videos posted by the Museum. With the interesting exception of a silent video presentation by conservation scientist Giovanni Verri, only the Liebieghaus case is presented, and the Frankfurt voice is sometimes evident in the Museum wall texts. There is no accompanying publication.

<em>Reconstruction of marble finial in the form of a sphinx (detail)</em>, 2022. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Reconstruction of marble finial in the form of a sphinx (detail), 2022. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The reconstructions by Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, scholars of ancient art at the Liebieghaus, are an export product in worldwide circulation. Chroma is derived from their initial traveling exhibition, Gods in Color, said to have been seen by three million people since 2003. For Chroma, they added a purpose-built reconstruction of the Metropolitan’s archaic Sphinx (ca. 530 BCE), remarkable for having retained so much fragile ancient painting. Edward Robinson, a Museum director (1910–31) with active classicist interests and especially intrigued by polychromy, made a point of acquiring classical artifacts with as much original color as possible. The original and the recent reconstruction are presented side by side: the Brinkmanns are angling for a showdown.

Following technical analysis of ancient pigments in situ, frequently invisible to the naked eye, they plotted their findings in fresh block colors—like a coloring book, with smaller features picked out in as much detail as the data suggests. The method is frustrated by the fact that the ancient artist’s crucial touches were necessarily his last. Underground, that uppermost layer would be the first to dissolve, while the relatively less artistic underpainting below would survive next-to-last. Does the data indicate that the ancients employed broken colors, painted shadows in chiaroscuro, and made telling inflections of gaze and expression? We know very well that they did, via better-preserved artifacts, but the “experiment” takes no side in any of that. The experimental reconstructions are uncannily void of apparent human intervention, yet they stand in, literally, for works of art. One regrets having seen them.

Ancient color is an explosive revelation, according to some of the posted exhibition documents, but this recent discovery just isn’t. Depending, of course, on how one defines “know” and “known.” The facts are undisputed, but some of them just don’t seem to count.

Vivid eyewitness testimony to color has been on record since the accidental discoveries of the Renaissance, throughout the deliberate excavations and published scholarship that followed in the eighteenth century, and of course, since. Historically, some of that color was lost under a hose with the clinging earth, or simply vanished by degrees, rather too much like Fellini’s discovery episode in Roma (1972). Perhaps the worst of the worst cases, the Parthenon marbles were deliberately stripped by Joseph Duveen, patron of the refurbished British Museum Room 18, for the look of classical antiquity. Yet despite all the losses, well before the turn of the twentieth century, lavishly colorful reconstructions of ancient Delphi and the Parthenon were au-courant archaeology, passed forward by ambitious young architects in spectacular Beaux-Arts prize renderings. Well before the automobile, airplane, radio, movies, TV, and HBO’s Rome (2005–07) our great-great-great grandparents saw the ancient world in color. Or could have.

Installation view: <em>Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color,</em> The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2023. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Installation view: Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2023. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

For the ancients, color served one urgent purpose: life-likeness, as it did for the next two thousand years, until classical statuary was excavated, and thereafter. The Metropolitan’s superlative Like Life exhibition in 2018 demonstrated that Western artists everywhere, in all periods, were hooked on naturalism and couldn’t keep their hands off color. Barren marble was an unsought inheritance. It was an eye-opener with a troubled backstory that could not be repressed. Sculpture (and architecture) of a single color was coined by artists through tears, haunted by the gaping eyes, empty hands, and waning pallor of ruin.

The invention of monochrome brought a paradigm shift tantamount to the advent of Cubism—it excused artists from literal likeness. They took that liberty a very long way. One might say all the way to Marfa. The path opened when Winckelmann, looking into a trench, saw the blush of life-likeness wane to vanishing and heard an emptied beauty speaking for itself.

Each lurching step forward in our understanding of the ancients has had unforeseeable artistic consequences. The legacy of antiquity is restless. Excavation has rearranged posterity more than once, but the past is not done with us. Beware the changing tales told by archeologists—they mean to look back but sometimes summon the future.

And now this… a time-sensitive bulletin from the Liebieghaus.

It is fair to say that most people are taken aback by the Frankfurt reconstructions, but the startling affront of the Brinkmann “experiments” is not the shock of the unexpected, or a violation of taste–these reconstructions presume that non-quantitative matters of inflection, empathy, and drama do not exist. The reconstructions do not merely put off the good stuff for later. They would seem to say that the ancients’ body language, their wide-eyed glare and sloe-eyed come-hither, was never there.


Brandt Junceau

Brandt Junceau is a sculptor, currently teaching at the New York Studio School. Instagram: @brandtjunceau 


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

All Issues