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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I was immediately taken by how lifelike Caligula looked, with healthy skin tone—no easy thing to reproduce. Koch-Brinkmann's immediate concern that day was the emperor's hair, carved in close-cropped curls, which she was painting a chocolaty brown over black underpainting (for volume) with lighter color accents (to suggest movement and texture). The brown irises of the emperor's eyes were darkest at the rim, and the inky black of each pupil was made lustrous by a pinprick of white.

Such realistic detail is a far cry from the rendering of Paris the archer. In circa 490 B.C., when it was sculpted, statues were decorated in flat colors, which were applied in a paint-by-numbers fashion. But as time passed, artists taught themselves to enhance effects of light and shadow, much as Koch-Brinkmann was doing with Caligula, created some five centuries after the archer. The Brinkmanns had also discovered evidence of shading and hatching on the "Alexander Sarcophagus" (created c. 320 B.C.)—a cause for considerable excitement. "It's a revolution in painting comparable to Giotto's in the frescoes of Padua," says Brinkmann.

Brinkmann has never proposed taking a paintbrush to an original antiquity. "No," he stresses, "I don't advocate that. We're too far away. The originals are broken into too many fragments. What's preserved isn't preserved well enough." Besides, modern taste is happy with fragments and torsos. We've come a long way since the end of the 18th century, when factories would take Roman fragments and piece them together, replacing whatever was missing. Viewers at the time felt the need of a coherent image, even if it meant fusing ancient pieces that belonged to different originals. "If it were a question of retouching, that would be defensible," Brinkmann says, "but as archaeological objects, ancient statues are sacrosanct."

A turning point in conservation came in 1815 when Lord Elgin approached Antonio Canova, the foremost neo-Classical sculptor, about restoring the Parthenon statues. "They were the work of the ablest artist the world has even seen," Canova replied. "It would be sacrilege for me, or any man, to touch them with a chisel." Canova's stance lent prestige to the aesthetic of the found object; one more reason to let the question of color slide.

In the introduction to the catalog of the Harvard show, Brinkmann confesses that even he is a relatively recent convert to the idea that the painting of statues actually constituted an art form. "What that means," he elaborates, "is that my perspective has been molded by 20th-century classicism. You can't shake that off. It stays with you all your life. Ask a psychiatrist. You have to work very hard to adjust to a new way of seeing. But I'm talking about personal feelings here, not about scholarly conviction."

Past attempts to colorize, notably by Victorian artists, were based mostly on fantasy and personal taste. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema's painting Pheidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon (1868-69) shows the Greek artist giving Pericles and other privileged Athenians a private tour of the Parthenon sculptures, which are rendered in thick, creamy colors. John Gibson's life-size statue Tinted Venus (1851-56) has honey hair and rose lips. One 19th-century reviewer dismissed it as "a naked impudent English woman"—a judgment viewers today are unlikely to share, given the discreet, low-key tints Gibson applied to the marble. In the United States, C. Paul Jennewein's king-size allegorical frieze of sacred and profane love on a pediment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, unveiled in 1933, is more lavish in its use of color. The figures, representing Zeus, Demeter and other Greek divinities, are executed in showy glazed terra cotta. To contemporary eyes, the effect appears Art Deco, and rather camp.

While viewers today may regard Brinkmann's reconstructions in the same light, his sculptures are intended as sober study objects. Areas where he has found no evidence of original coloration are generally left white. Where specific color choices are speculative, contrasting color re-creations of the same statue are made to illustrate the existing evidence and how it has been interpreted. For example, in one version of the so-called Cuirass-Torso from the Acropolis in Athens (the one in which the armor appears to cling like a wet T-shirt, above), the armor is gold; in another it is yellow. Both are based on well-founded guesses. "Vitality is what the Greeks were after," Brinkmann says, "that, and the charge of the erotic. They always found ways to emphasize the power and beauty of the naked body. Dressing this torso and giving it color was a way to make the body sexier."

But the question remains: How close can science come to reproducing the art of a vanished age? There is no definitive answer. Years ago, a first generation of inquisitive musicians started experimenting with early instruments, playing at low tunings on gut strings or natural horns, hoping to restore the true sound of the Baroque. Whatever the curiosity or informational value of the performances, there were discriminating listeners who thought them mere exercises in pedantry. When the next generation came along, period practice was becoming second nature. Musicians used their imagination as well as the rule books and began making music.


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