Friday, May 30, 2008

Brightly Painted Ancient Sculpture Featured at Getty Villa

A polychromy restoration of the Roman emperor
Augustus in his Prima Porta pose.  Image courtesy of
The Digital Sculpture Project.

I particularly enjoyed reading about this upcoming exhibit at the Getty Villa and looking at the picture of a brightly colored Augustus in his Prima Porta pose in preparation for my visit there in two weeks.

"For nearly two centuries, some scholars have been arguing that white-on-white and green-on-green were not the true tints of antiquity. The Parthenon in Athens and the Forum in Rome might have been almost gaudy. But such ideas have never trickled down, or even sideways: In Hollywood today, but also in many experts’ talk, the ancient world comes off as monochrome. In Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, when Russell Crowe strides down the streets of ancient Rome, circa A.D. 180, he’s backed up by the proper complement of bronzes and marbles. All of them are green or white.

But, a flood of recent exhibitions has set out to put their color back. Over the past five years, audiences in Amsterdam, Athens, Basel, Boston, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Munich, and Rome have been treated to a bright new image of Greek and Roman art.

One of the greatest statues of Augustus, first emperor of Rome, has come down to us in marble. His carved armor and rippling robe meld into the symphony of cream on cream we all expect. At the Getty Villa in Malibu, Calif., a reconstruction of the piece, retouched with colors based on tints that still cling here and there to the original, has the great Augustus togaed in a cherry red that matches his lips. His tunic’s touched with blue. What he’s lost in elegance he’s regained in verve.

The head of the Roman emperor known as Caligula
 colored as it would have been in antiquity  Image
courtesy of The Digital Sculpture Project.
A carved portrait of Caligula, the mad Roman emperor who died in the year 41, looks blank-eyed and remote in the marble that’s survived. His reconstruction, computer-carved into another block of marble and then painted, now has nice pink cheeks, red lips and brown eyes and hair. The insane leader who declared himself a god now comes across as the Roman next door.

“Oh Praxiteles, which are your greatest marbles?” a fan once asked that famous sculptor, who pioneered the art of female nudes in Athens around 350 B.C. The artist — or so the story went in ancient times — answered that he preferred those works whose stone had been colored over by Nicias, a leader in the art of realistic panel painting. So much for the ancients’ taste for sculpture’s white perfection.

“For the Greeks, it was all about mimesis,” says Getty curator Kenneth Lapatin, using the Greek word for realistic imitation. Beauty depended on it.

“If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect / The way you would wipe color off a statue,” says Helen of Troy, in lines written by Euripides in 412 B.C. For Greeks of that era, not only were sculptures assumed to be painted but also if you stripped their paint you stripped their good looks, too." 

No comments: