Hyperallergic: 'Met Exhibition Brings Back the Color to Ancient Sculptures'

Published 11 July 2022 in Insights


'Met Exhibition Brings Back the Color to Ancient Sculptures'

By Elaine Velie

Hyperallergic - Art

Published 07  July 2022

'Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color' reminds us, once again, that our view of the ancient world is whitewashed.

'Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color' at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

In Ancient Greece in 530 BCE, visitors to the grave of a young boy and girl would have gazed toward the sky and seen a brightly painted sphinx perched atop the 13-foot marble stele that marked the children’s final resting place.

The stele and sphinx, on display as part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, appear just like the other sculptures in the museum’s sun-lit halls — a stark white. But a new exhibition, 'Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color', showcases the sphinx in its original vibrant form, one of 14 painted reconstructions of Ancient Greek and Roman statues. On view through March 23 of 2023, 'Chroma' also highlights 40 other objects that contextualize polychromy, the painting of ancient sculpture and pottery.

A painted sphinx used to sit on top of the marble stele. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

'Chroma' is the outcome of an extensive collaboration between conservators, scientists, and curators who helped to create the replica of the sphinx. The exhibition’s other reconstructions were created by Vinzenz Brinkmann, head of antiquities at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt, and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann. The husband-and-wife team has studied polychromy for over 40 years. Their 'Gods in Color' exhibition has been touring since 2003, and their replicas have been included in museums around the world.

Instead of relegating the colorful reconstructions to a separate gallery space, the works at the Met are interspersed within the museum’s iconic ancient sculpture halls, with a small upstairs gallery dedicated entirely to the show. Throughout the exhibition, labels explain the scientific process for determining the statues’ true colors.

Sarah Lepinski, associate curator in the Met’s Department of Greek and Roman Art, wanted the works to be in dialogue with the museum’s collection. When possible, the replicas are displayed near comparable works (the originals are dispersed in collections throughout the world). But in the case of the sphinx, the reproduction stands adjacent to the real thing.

“We thought this would work best for understanding the pieces within their historical context,” Lepinski told Hyperallergic.

The painted works are dispersed throughout the Met’s ancient sculpture halls. (photo Elaine Velie/Hyperallergic)

That art historical context is exceedingly broad: Curator Seán Hemingway told Hyperallergic that most Ancient Greek and Roman statues have traces of their original polychromy and can be reconstructed in color. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, white marble was not considered the final product, but rather a blank canvas. So why do these bright, multicolored statues still shock us?

Hemingway spoke to the grim implications of whitewashing ancient art: Not only does a stunted understanding of ancient polychromy present a version of history in which societies were more White-centric than they actually were, but it renders the Classical ideal, upheld as an aesthetic standard for art and beyond, also White.

“White supremacists have latched onto this idea of white sculpture — it’s not true but it serves their purposes,” Hemingway said. “There are people like that who make their own argument out of what they want to believe. And then there’s all this evidence that shows that sculptures were brightly painted, but they’re often not very well preserved.”

Hemingway said there is still a lot that scholars don’t know, adding that statues that spent time in Victorian collections are particularly difficult to reconstruct because they were cleaned so extensively.