Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 13, 2008
Roberta Panzanelli, ed. The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to the Present Exh. cat. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008. 200 pp.; 166 color ills.; 10 b/w ills. Paper $49.95 (9780892369181)
Exhibition schedule: J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, March 6–June 23, 2008
Luciano Ermo and Cast by Andrea Felice and Polychromy by Stefano Spada. RETURNED LOAN—Reconstruction of original polychromy of the Augustus of Prima Porta (2002–3). Plaster, wood, and pigment. Object (with base): H: 225 x W: 100 x D: 80 cm (88 9/16 x 39 3/8 x 31 1/2 in.) Vatican Museums. Vatican City. Photographic Archives of the Vatican Museums, © Vatican Museums.

First, a disclaimer. Throughout my art-history education, which began in the 1960s and was probably typical, pre-twentieth-century sculpture was evaluated much as it had been since the Renaissance, which is to say in formal terms, the purity of its planes and contours competing with painting’s reliance on surface and color. I came to know, at least intellectually, that perceptions and judgments are indelibly affected by the conventions and values of our time, and assumed that, in the objective spirit in which art historians are taught to approach works of art, I would adjust gracefully to new evidence requiring shifts in interpretation. In fact, The Color of Life exhibition at the Getty Villa in Malibu, and particularly the classical gallery that serves as introduction, was far more unsettling than I would have imagined.

The exhibition traces, in broad strokes, the history of polychromy in figural sculpture from the ancient world to the present day. Ambitious in scope and including both works of art and reconstructions based on scientific evidence of original coloration, it raises a number of questions as well as questions a number of assumptions about the way we see and evaluate three-dimensional representations of the human form. This effort benefits from a series of interrelated exhibitions that appeared in Copenhagen, Munich, and Rome in 2004, and, most recently, at Harvard’s Sackler Museum (Gods in Color, 2007–8). Roberta Panzanelli, Senior Research Specialist at the Getty Research Institute, who in 2002 independently conceived the Getty exhibition, was able to include a number of objects from the European series that, as she explains, help “situate our understanding of color in antiquity at the center of the issues related to polychromy in sculpture” (Panzanelli email to author). The exhibition is, however, unique in extending the focus beyond antiquity. Its broad reach enables it to demonstrate the continuing presence of polychromed sculpture and, by means of a relatively modest number of carefully chosen examples, to suggest the complexity of a subject long overdue for serious attention.

Given my initial response, it was a relief to find Panzanelli immediately identify as a pivotal issue the fact that, despite thorough documentation of the widespread use of polychromy in figural sculpture for the past four thousand years, the subject remains difficult, even objectionable. “Why,” she asks, “does our modern sensibility often find color in sculpture unnecessary, in poor taste, or aesthetically offensive?” (2) Why is the historical truth here so at odds with our intellectual and aesthetic convictions and preferences? Clear evidence of artistic intent notwithstanding, we have, until very recently it appears, continued to define sculpture in terms of pure, monochromatic form.

The notion of antique sculpture as essentially monochromatic emerged in the Renaissance, prompted in part by ancient finds such as the Laöcoon (1506) and Apollo Belvedere (1509) whose surfaces had degraded over time. Contemporary discourses arguing the relative merits of painting and sculpture saw the latter medium solely in terms of form, apparently ignoring remaining traces of ancient color. The modern distaste for polychromy, Panzanelli notes, derives equally from “Neoclassical conventions rooted in the Platonic aversion to images (and bodies) in their substantive presence” (8). This intellectual tradition, embraced by Winckelmann, combined aesthetics and ethics—both Hegel and Schopenhauer stressed the “purity of idea expressed by form” over the deceptive illusionism of color. (It is ironic that the discovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii, which offered overwhelming evidence of the use of polychromy, occurred during the Neoclassical period.) The exhibition argues that polychromy in figural sculpture was not a matter of “low,” craftsmanly, surface decoration but, in fact, a means to “facilitate the most noble aims of art.” Color has been used throughout much of the history of art to enhance likeness, to make meaning legible, to convey through a “closer simulacrum of life” the humanity, triumphs, and suffering of those depicted.

The “difficulty” with colored sculpture that Panzanelli notes is most striking in the case of Greek and Roman sculpture, and the exhibition offers a number of extraordinary examples—a fourth-century funerary lekythos, a Roman bust of Caligula, a cast of the Augustus Prima Porta, among many others, all juxtaposed with reconstructions displaying sharply detailed, flatly painted, and often glaringly bright polychromy. The challenge to familiar aesthetic convictions and preferences is considerable. I remember passing mention in lectures of color in classical sculpture, but, at least for the non-specialist, the subject was barely discussed—as though no one wanted to imagine the effect such knowledge would require us to project. It is reassuring to learn that such willful ignorance was not limited to graduate students but extended to no lesser luminaries than Panofsky, who suggested that had the original polychromy of figures at Chartres been preserved it would have spoiled our aesthetic enjoyment; and Pope-Hennessy, whose multi-volume work on Renaissance sculpture ignored the subject entirely. One of the many valuable contributions of this exhibition is to expose the intellectual consequences of these persistent biases.

It is important to recognize that, although painstakingly crafted and based on considerable evidence of the nature and extent of pigmentation, the reconstructions seen here remain “best guesses” about original coloration. Ancient texts leave no question about the widespread use of polychromy to enhance lifelikeness, but the paucity of color traces means that much has to be imagined. In his catalogue essay, Vinzenz Brinkmann notes that such reconstructions should be seen as experiments, works in progress whose value lies more in what is learned from the process than in visual effect. Indeed, Panzanelli acknowledges that “acrylic colors on a synthetic cast appear very different from pure purple applied on Parian marble; we can only dream of the difference in translucency and nuances of hues” (Panzanelli email to author). Still, she maintains, there is little doubt that the reconstructions more closely approximate original appearance than the monochromatic marbles familiar to us.

If the juxtapositions of original and reconstructed works from antiquity are the most challenging, the carefully selected objects in the galleries that follow are nonetheless compelling. One finds, for example, a pair of painted wooden figures (ca. 1600) attributed to El Greco, elongated in the manner familiar from his paintings and possibly related to his Laöcoon (ca. 1610); an extraordinary “anatomical wax” Venus (1782) constructed in layers enabling viewers to view internal organs modeled on close study of cadavers; an early eighteenth-century Spanish Pietà of painted and gilded linen, plaster, glue, and glass; and two late eighteenth–early nineteenth-century onyx/marble busts that incorporate bonze, gilt, enamel, and precious stones in a brilliant demonstration of artists’ use of the “natural” polychromy of materials to imitate life. A remarkable series of terracotta busts—among them, a Man in Armor by Vicenzo Onofri (ca. 1500); Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici, attributed to Antonio D’Orsino Benintendi (ca. 1512), believed to be realized from a life cast; Bartolommeo Mazzuoli’s Pope Benedict XIII (ca. 1725); and a Portrait Head of a Martinique Woman with Kerchief by Paul Gauguin (1887–88)—demonstrate how effectively skillfully applied color can enhance form and convey subtleties of human physiognomy. The enormous subject of color in twentieth-century sculpture is, understandably, addressed only briefly. Most striking in context, John de Andrea’s exquisitely detailed Dying Gaul (1984) is poignantly juxtaposed with a cast of the Roman copy of the Greek original on which it is based—a historical layering that points to the renewable resource that art of enduring quality has always offered.

The didactic nature of the exhibition requires it to deal with the challenge of juxtaposing original sculptures with two-dimensional reproductions as well as full-scale reconstructions. To do this without reducing objects of quality to the status of instructional example is difficult, to say the least, but largely achieved here by strategic placement and the use of color to isolate. An unobtrusively installed video kiosk shows pedimental figures from the Temple of Aphaia, Aegina under infrared light that reveals otherwise invisible polychromy patterns used as the basis for the reconstructions on view; a display of raw pigments validates colors used; and variously painted casts of the Peplos Kore dating from 1975 to 2005 demonstrate advances in knowledge over time. The exhibition, in short, lets the public in on its curatorial and scientific processes, conveying both their effectiveness and their limitations

The catalogue, which goes far beyond documenting this particular exhibition, does the same—pointing out how many questions remain. Four essays address polychromy in Greek, Roman, medieval, early modern, and contemporary art, and include reproductions of a great many objects and reconstructions not on view. This is not, however, an exhibition that should have been a book. One could argue that this is always true—that there is no substitute for the direct experience of works of art—but the case is particularly compelling here given that the subject is sculpture, which inhabits our space physically as well as conceptually, and that one of the most striking of the many lessons offered is the reminder of the essential subjectivity—the utterly conditional nature—of perception

Leaving the exhibition and making my way through adjacent galleries, I encountered a group of tiny Cycladic figures that, after several hours of polychromed glory, appeared all the more radically spare. My immediate response—visual relief—pointed to personal biases that are probably as inevitable as they are in need of examination (in fact, I later learned, Cycladic figures were originally painted) and reminded me that this kind of heightened awareness is, in significant measure, what good exhibitions offer.

Marjorie L. Harth
Emeritus Professor and Director, Pomona College Museum of Art