True Colors

Archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann insists his eye-popping reproductions of ancient Greek sculptures are right on target

The painted replica of a c. 490 B.C. archer (at the Parthenon in Athens) testifies to German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann’s painstaking research into the ancient sculpture’s colors. The original statue came from the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina. (Stiftung Archäologie, Munich)
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Colored statues? To us, classical antiquity means white marble. Not so to the Greeks, who thought of their gods in living color and portrayed them that way too. The temples that housed them were in color, also, like mighty stage sets. Time and weather have stripped most of the hues away. And for centuries people who should have known better pretended that color scarcely mattered.

White marble has been the norm ever since the Renaissance, when classical antiquities first began to emerge from the earth. The sculpture of Trojan priest Laocoön and his two sons struggling with serpents sent, it is said, by the sea god Poseidon (discovered in 1506 in Rome and now at the Vatican Museums) is one of the greatest early finds. Knowing no better, artists in the 16th century took the bare stone at face value. Michelangelo and others emulated what they believed to be the ancient aesthetic, leaving the stone of most of their statues its natural color. Thus they helped pave the way for neo-Classicism, the lily-white style that to this day remains our paradigm for Greek art.

By the early 19th century, the systematic excavation of ancient Greek and Roman sites was bringing forth great numbers of statues, and there were scholars on hand to document the scattered traces of their multicolored surfaces. Some of these traces are still visible to the naked eye even today, though much of the remaining color faded, or disappeared entirely, once the statues were again exposed to light and air. Some of the pigment was scrubbed off by restorers whose acts, while well intentioned, were tantamount to vandalism. In the 18th century, the pioneering archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann chose to view the bare stone figures as pure—if you will, Platonic—forms, all the loftier for their austerity. "The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well," he wrote. "Color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty. Color should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty, because it is not [color] but structure that constitutes its essence." Against growing evidence to the contrary, Winckelmann's view prevailed. For centuries to come, antiquarians who envisioned the statues in color were dismissed as eccentrics, and such challenges as they mounted went ignored.

No longer; German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann is on a mission. Armed with high-intensity lamps, ultraviolet light, cameras, plaster casts and jars of costly powdered minerals, he has spent the past quarter century trying to revive the peacock glory that was Greece. He has dramatized his scholarly findings by creating full-scale plaster or marble copies hand-painted in the same mineral and organic pigments used by the ancients: green from malachite, blue from azurite, yellow and ocher from arsenic compounds, red from cinnabar, black from burned bone and vine.

Call them gaudy, call them garish, his scrupulous color reconstructions made their debut in 2003 at the Glyptothek museum in Munich, which is devoted to Greek and Roman statuary. Displayed side by side with the placid antiquities of that fabled collection, the replicas shocked and dazzled those who came to see them. As Time magazine summed up the response, "The exhibition forces you to look at ancient sculpture in a totally new way."

"If people say, ‘What kitsch,' it annoys me," Brinkmann says, "but I'm not surprised." Actually, the public took to his replicas, and invitations to show them elsewhere quickly poured in. In recent years, Brinkmann's slowly growing collection has been more or less constantly on the road—from Munich to Amsterdam, Copenhagen to Rome—jolting viewers at every turn. London's The Guardian reported that the show received an "enthusiastic, if bewildered" reception at the Vatican Museums. "Il Messagero found the exhibition ‘disorientating, shocking, but often splendid.' Corriere della Sera's critic felt that ‘suddenly, a world we had been used to regarding as austere and reflective has been turned on its head to become as jolly as a circus.'" At the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, Brinkmann's painted reconstruction of sections of the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus (named not for the king buried in it but for his illustrious friend Alexander the Great, who is depicted in its sculpted frieze) was unveiled beside the breathtaking original; German television and print media spread the news around the globe. In Athens, top officials of the Greek government turned out for the opening when the collection went on view—and this was the ultimate honor—at the National Archaeological Museum.

Taking advantage of the occasion, Brinkmann set some of his showpieces up for photographers on the Acropolis: a brilliantly colored, exotic-looking archer, kneeling with bow and arrow; a goddess smiling an archaic smile; and, perhaps most startling of all, a warrior's gilded torso in armor that clings to the body like a wet T-shirt. The figures may have looked wrong against the bleached, sun-drenched architecture, but they looked fine under the blazing Mediterranean sky.

An American showing was overdue. This past fall, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum at Harvard University presented virtually the entire Brinkmann canon in an exhibition called "Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity." Selected replicas were also featured earlier this year in "The Color of Life," at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, which surveyed polychromy from antiquity to the present. Other highlights included El Greco's paired statuettes of Epimetheus and Pandora (long misidentified as Adam and Eve) rendered in painted wood and Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier's exotic Jewish Woman of Algiers of 1862, a portrait bust in onyx-marble, gold, enamel and amethyst.


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