The Myth of Sculpted Whiteness

There’s a color correction going on in archeological circles. I’ve been following it ever since I read a Smithsonian article about computer simulations revealing how the ancient Greeks might have painted their statues–in brilliant color! I’ve been heartened to see that this scholarship has not gone away. A New Yorker article brings polychromy into the present time. Snippet:

Mark Abbe was ambushed by color in 2000, while working on an archeological dig in the ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias, in present-day Turkey. At the time, he was a graduate student at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and, like most people, he thought of Greek and Roman statues as objects of pure white marble.

Like most people. Not me. Maybe that comes from being brown. I can still remember how intuitively right it felt to me back in 2008 when I first heard of the possibility that those pure white marbles–weren’t. Greek stories after all were filled with color, brimming over with it, grapes and pomegranates and wine-dark seas and whatnot. What was with all those pearl-white statues?

The Smithsonian article quotes Helen of Troy’s words from the eponymous play by Euripides:

My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,
Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.

So wiping color off a statue is a destructive thing to do, right? And now it turns out it was also an act of colonization. The purity of Greek marbles was extolled (and shined up, during cleaning and preservation) around the very time they were stolen from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin.

34697157What’s even more telling is how the notion of color on ancient statues raises hackles even today. When University of Iowa classics professor, Sarah Bond, published essays arguing that it was time to accept that ancient sculpture was not pure white, and neither were the people of the ancient world, she received hate mail. White supremacists, it turns out, get huffy when they’re told that their vision of the ancient world is lacking in color.

Polychromy is a word with power. It goes back to 1859, when it was first used, according to my reliable OED, “to define the art of painting or decorating in several colours, especially as anciently used in pottery, architecture, etc.”  Happily, the polychromy theory has plenty of evidence to back it. And Brinkmann et al, cited in that 2008 Smithsonian article, have published a book packed with pictures. 

It all makes sense. But get this (cited in the New Yorker article):

For Abbe, who is now a professor of ancient art at the University of Georgia, the idea that the ancients disdained bright color “is the most common misconception about Western aesthetics in the history of Western art.” It is, he said, “a lie we all hold dear.”

And that, to my mind, speaks volumes.

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