Gods in Color

We went to the Legion of Honor (that’s one of San Francisco’s art museums) yesterday for two exhibitions that are each closing soon, one on Klimt and Rodin, the other called “Gods in Color.” This one featured reproductions of Greek and Roman statues colored as current scholars think they would have been originally. It’s a shock to those of us brought up on the notion— derived largely from the 18th-century German art historian Johann Winckelmann—that the whiteness of Greek marble was part of its timeless significance.

In a postmodern age, that notion has (rightly, I think) been deconstructed: nothing is timeless, all is historicized; whiteness as eternal and eminently beautiful is, fairly obviously, a racialized construction.

The statues, and the research behind them, come from a group in Frankfurt called Liebieghaus. Check them out here.

The colored statues in the exhibition certainly do their bit in deconstructing that “classical” aesthetic of pure whiteness. I wish the curators had made more of a connection with the issues of race (they do note a gendered pattern, in that women are given whiter complexions than men).

My memory of art history classes about these statues is that they concentrate on aspects that are, for lack of a better word, statuesque: their sense of proportions, balance, posture. With the addition of color, surface patterns suddenly become much more important. The fabric on this statue (apparently Artemis, I think), for example, is fascinating and complex.


Narratives in the temple friezes, like this with Alexander the Great, in white armor, suddenly become intense and explicit with the addition of color: here he tramples on a Persian whose garb is “barbarian”—that is, garishly tasteless. Guess who’s winning this battle?


13 Replies to “Gods in Color”

  1. Nick-

    Looks very interesting. I had heard that the Greeks colored their statuary but have never seen any examples of how they might have looked. Did the Romans do the same?

    Please include me in your blogs. Thanks!

  2. Fascinating. I read the article, which is long but very interesting. The female statue according to the article is a young girl from a burial site, name started with P. Such a different perspective of the classical marble

  3. Thanks for letting us know about the blog, Nick. Very interesting comments and photos. The same thing about color applies to medieval cathedrals and churches. The exterior sculptures were painted–thus the facades, now white, or rather a dull grey from weathering, were clothed in color. (Light shows, such as one at Amiens, reconstruct some of the effect.) There was an exhibit several years ago at the MOMA “branch” in Long Island City (PS 1 ??) that had an exhibit of classical heads “repainted”. Very interesting. I’ll send you a couple of pics. I’m sure you know of the cleaning and repainting of the interior of Chartres cathedral. What a difference it makes—light and clarity.

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