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The Metropolitan Museum exhibited ancient sculptures in color: many now think that the ancient Romans and Greeks had bad taste


Nadezhda Verbitskaya

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Even if you know what to expect, the results are confusing. 17 richly colored reproductions of ancient sculpture mixed with Greek and Roman originals create a riot of color among the finer shades of marble and bronze. The painted works are part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color exhibition. It presents reconstructions of what ancient sculpture might have looked like, based on scientific analysis of pigment fragments from many surviving antiquities. The Washington Post.

Scientists have long known that the ancients painted and covered their statues with gold. They also inserted metals, gems, and other materials into them to make them appear more realistic. But the belief that ancient sculpture was monochrome—white as marble—remains stronger and more enduring than science.

In its new exhibition, the Met is trying to counter this with reconstructions by Vinzenz Brinkmann and his wife Ulrika Koch-Brinkmann. Scientists from Frankfurt (Germany) specialize in the study of the so-called polychromy. These include a painted reconstruction of a marble pommel of a sphinx from the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the sixth century BC. His wings are red and blue with golden feathers, his tail is dyed blue, and his neck is adorned with a red and gold choker.

Met looks at the body stripped of its whiteness

The painted works are made of modern materials. For example, plaster casts, synthetic marble, marble, cast bronze and 3D printed polymethyl methacrylate. They are covered with marble plaster and colored with tempera pigments based on original recipes. The earliest work done in color is a Cycladic figure with an enormous head connected to an abstract body. Now with a small triangle of cinnabar, creating a curve of red lips, points on the cheeks and arched eyebrows. Since the beginning of the XNUMXth century, the Cycladic figures have had a cult power for contemporary artists, as they are an ancient prototype of abstraction. They seemed to capture Freud's Jungian archetypes and psychic energies, as well as inspire new ways of distorting and reshaping the human being.

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In the painted version of the Cycladic figure, these minimal facial details struggle against abstraction. You may think it looks like a cartoon. There is a feeling that the figure has awakened from a long sleep.
The exhibition also includes archaic and classical Greek statues, Hellenistic figures, Roman portraits and bronzes. But, regardless of style or era, it is the eyes that cause the most discomfort. In the works that seem to us the most realistic, the eyes seem to be roughly executed. Even in the archaic pommel of the Sphinx, they violate our idea that this is a stylized figure. The eyes connect the figure more to the world of wax figures and animatronic figures.

The eyes take on a supernatural power when the two figures are combined into an ensemble. Especially the two boxers who look at each other with exhaustion are commonly known as "Therme Ruler" and "Therme Boxer", discovered in Rome in 1885. Reconstructions of these bronze figures use various metal alloys and other materials to depict bruises, swollen lips, cuts and blood. As well as patination to make bronze skin more realistic. Used and polished gems for the eyes, which now stare with burning hatred.

The purpose of this exhibition is our own resistance and understanding of the roots of this resistance.

The alleged whiteness of ancient sculptures is intertwined with the broader concept of whiteness in European culture. And the feeling that painting statues somehow makes them cheaper may well be rooted in racial thinking. The painted statues also appear to be new in the sense that they have just been stamped by some modern industrial process. And so they lack the supposed authenticity of truly ancient things.

All painted statues are interpretations of what polychrome scholars thought they might have looked like.

It is also possible that the ancients simply made a mistake in their use of color. And that these statues improved as the colors wore off. And ideas of authenticity are always complex. The only thing we can never know is whether our ideas about color have anything to do with how color was perceived when these works were new.

Indeed, when the ancients wrote about color, from Homer and Parmenides to Plato and Aristotle, their terminology often seems distinctly foreign. Was the dark sea wine really the color of the beautiful Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Or was it something to do with brilliance or some other visual quality? Nietzsche was convinced that the ancient Greeks saw neither blue nor green. In his opinion, they lived in a world of black, white, red and yellow.

So, Chroma is a concern - in all the right ways. It asks us to fundamentally rethink our understanding of the ancient world. It's always worth the effort. After that, you can spoil the old work exactly the way you want.

The exhibition “Ancient Sculpture in Color” runs until March 26, 2023 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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