Scholars have long known that the ancients painted and gilded their statues and embedded metals, precious stones and other materials to make them seem more lifelike. But the belief that ancient sculpture was monochrome — white as marble or uniformly patinated bronze — remains more durable and persistent than the scholarship.
In its new exhibition, the Met is pushing back against the general resistance, using speculative reconstructions by Vinzenz Brinkmann and his wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, scholars based in Frankfurt, Germany, who have specialized in the study of what is called polychromy. These include a painted reconstruction of the Met’s sixth-century B.C. marble sphinx finial, in which the wings are red and blue with gilded feathers, the tail dipped in blue and the neck ornamented with a red-and-gold choker.
The colorized works are made of contemporary materials, including plaster casts, synthetic marble, marble, cast bronze, and 3D-printed polymethyl methacrylate, covered with marble plaster and painted in tempera with pigments based on original formulations. The earliest work rendered into color is a Cycladic figure, with an oversize head connected to an abstracted body, now with a small triangle of cinnabar to create a rictus of red lips, dots on the cheeks and arching eyebrows. Since the early 20th century, Cycladic figures have had iconic power for contemporary artists, as an ancient prefiguration of abstraction. They seemed to capture something primitive or dreamlike, Jungian archetypes and Freudian psychic energies, and inspired new ways to distort and reconfigure the human form.
In the colorized version of the Cycladic figure, these minimal facial details fight against abstraction. You may feel as if it looks like a cartoon. It also leaves the uncanny sense that the figure has waked from a long sleep and is keenly aware that you are observing its first flickering of consciousness.
The exhibition also includes archaic and classical Greek statues, Hellenistic figures, and Roman portraits and bronzes. But no matter the style or the era, it is the eyes that cause the most discomfort. In the works that seem most lifelike to our sensibility — the classical Greek, Hellenistic and Roman figures — the eyes feel crudely done. Even in the archaic Sphinx finial, they disrupt our sense that this is a stylized figure. The eyes connect the figure more to the world of waxwork displays and animatronic figures, contemporary forms of mimesis that seem too eager to please, to urgent in their efforts to dupe us into believing they are real.
The eyes take on preternatural power when two figures are joined in an ensemble, especially the two pugilists who eye each other with exhaustion in a grouping commonly known as the “Terme Ruler” and “Terme Boxer,” discovered in Rome in 1885. The reconstruction of these bronze figures uses different metal alloys and other materials to suggest bruises, swollen lips, gashes and blood, and patination to make the bronze skin more lifelike. It also uses polished precious stones for the eyes, which now stare with a blazing hatred.
Making a bronze statue of this size, and with this level of detail, is already an astonishing feat, even before you add the extra details of color. But the modern viewer may be split between admiration for the basic bronze figures while feeling that the coloration adds unwanted psychological specificity, making their emotions explicit and bringing a blunt sense of their inner life too much to the surface.
The challenge of this exhibition is our own resistance, and understanding the roots of that resistance. The supposed whiteness of ancient statuary is intertwined with larger ideas of Whiteness in European culture, and the sense that colorizing the statues somehow cheapens them could well be rooted in racialized thinking. The colorized statues also seem “new” in the sense that they have just been pressed or stamped by some modern industrial process, and thus lack the supposed authenticity of genuinely ancient things.
But our resistance isn’t always irrational or rooted in pernicious ideas. Sometimes it is just a matter of baggage. All the colorized statues are interpretations of what the polychrome scholars believe they may have looked like. And small, subjective decisions can bring about unwanted or unexpected ideas in the mind of the viewer.
Take, for example, a statue known as the “Small Herculaneum Woman,” a graceful figure whose gesture of wrapping a mantle around her torso evokes an elegant sense of sway and motion. In the colorized version, the mantle is a translucent fabric of light green through which the pink of her gown is clearly visible. It’s a bold interpretation and makes the hard material seem almost miraculously diaphanous. But the particulars of this pink and green, and the seeming flimsiness of the material, are coded cheap to contemporary eyes, more like fabrics meant to be seen onstage than up close on the red carpet.
It’s also possible that the ancients were simply wrong about using color, and that these statues improved as the colors faded or abraded away. Certainly, we are under no obligation to view these statues in color, so long as we honestly acknowledge their longer history and original appearance as essential facts. And ideas of authenticity are always tricky. The one thing we can never know is whether our ideas of color have any relation to 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 decidedly foreign. Was the wine-dark sea really the color of a fine Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or did that refer to something about luster or sheen or some other visual quality? Nietzsche was convinced that the ancient Greeks couldn’t see blue or green and lived in a world of black, white, red and yellow.
It’s also possible that the original figures were meant to be shocking, and our own sense of shock is an analogue to how they were perceived thousands of years ago. We are surprised because they seem foreign, and even perhaps a bit vulgar to our sense of taste. The ancient sense of surprise may have been no less vigorous, though different in kind: They were shockingly not of the real world, more real, or surreal, in a way that elevated them above the ordinary palette of existence. In the case of mythical figures or gods and goddesses, that aesthetic makes perfect sense.
So, “Chroma” is unsettling — in all the right ways. It asks us to fundamentally reimagine our sense of the ancient world. That’s always an effort worth making. After you’ve made it, feel free to indulge the old works exactly as you wish.
Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color Through March 26 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. metmuseum.org.