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?