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March 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1440

Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color

Reviewed by Roko Rumora

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 5th July 2022–26th March 2023

If asked to name the most successful exhibition of contemporary German art, few people would intuitively think of an exhibition presenting vivid reconstructions of the polychromy of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. In part, this is due to the tendency to see the exhibition’s principal attractions, the colourful sculptures produced by the archaeologists Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, as something more akin to pedagogical tools rather than works of art. For over three decades, the German couple has been producing objects that visualise their groundbreaking research on the surviving traces of paint on individual statues. Calling their works ‘reconstructions’ justly highlights the meticulous scholarship behind each project, but these sculptures are also works of art – meaningful objects made by individuals working within a specific historical context and with a particular intention. The newest presentation of their work in the exhibition under review offers an opportunity to situate the Brinkmanns’s work, now representing a lifetime of scholarship, in a new light.[1] 

Strategically installed throughout twelve galleries in the Greek and Roman wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibition presents seventeen reconstructions made by the Brinkmanns over the years. As a complement to these interventions, the museum has also produced prominent new labels for dozens of objects in their permanent collection, highlighting the surviving evidence of their ancient colouring. Virtually all of the exhibited reconstructions are well-known to specialists in ancient sculpture – only one, a reconstruction of the museum’s Archaic Greek sphinx that sits atop the so-called ‘Megakles stele’ (Fig.7), was newly produced for the exhibition (Fig.8). This academic familiarity does not, however, dampen the narrative of the exhibition, the raison d’être of which is the notion that its findings are unfamiliar. 

Even a couple of minutes spent observing visitors as they encounter the Brinkmanns’s work for the first time is enough to recognise that the overall project is still as impactful as it was when it first came on view, at the Glyptothek, Munich, in 2003. In recent years, ancient polychromy has been given unprecedented media attention in publications aimed at general audiences, and these discussions have rightly highlighted the need to raise public awareness that statues were once painted.[2] One might question, however, at what point this project will be complete and what would constitute success of such an awareness campaign. Since the thousands of ancient marbles housed in museums across the world have, with few notable exceptions, lost their colouring irretrievably, viewers will always experience them first in this plain state. It is possible, therefore, that the surprise of encountering painted reconstructions will become something of a permanent feature, rather than a temporary bug, of our relationship to Classical Antiquity. 

Each reconstruction in Chroma is based on a Greek or Roman statue containing traces of pigment on its surface.[3] On some of these original works, such as a statue of Artemis (1st century BC–AD 1st century; Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) found in Pompeii in 1760, the ancient pigments are visible to the naked eye. On others, such as the so-called Cuirass-Torso (470 BC; Acropolis Museum, Athens), the only evidence is the ‘imprint’ of weathering on once-painted surfaces, revealing in raking light the pattern of decoration applied to the stone, which has provided the basis for the coloured version (Fig.6). Although this variety can be dizzying, it also reflects the exhilarating fact that there are many distinct avenues of research available to those seeking to recover the evidence of ancient colouring. 

Greeting visitors at the entrance is a tour-de-force reconstruction of the Archaic Greek grave monument of Phrasikleia, the original of which is in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (Fig.9). Discovered in 1972 in Merenta (ancient Myrrinous), this statue of a young maiden was carved c.540 BC by Aristion, a sculptor from the island of Paros. The statue’s discovery was sensational, due in no small part to the exceptional state of the object’s preservation, including numerous areas of ancient colour visible to the naked eye, as well as ornamental patterns incised on Phrasikleia’s robe, belt and diadem. With the help of ultraviolet-visible absorption spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, the Brinkmanns were able to identify specific pigments used to paint Phrasikleia. Her skin, eyes and hair were painted with red and brown madder lake, red and brown ochre, and lead white. Three different reds and yellows were used on the dress, including red and yellow iron oxide, orpiment and cinnabar. 

Throughout the show, the labels repeatedly emphasise this high degree of scientific accuracy; however, they are less explicit about the subjective element of the reconstruction process. Spectroscopic analysis is performed only on microscopically small areas of the surface of a sculpture, and its results are valid only for that tiny area. If several such spot tests on a statue reveal the same pigment, this may mean that the entire area was covered in it, but it may also mean that the colour was more localised. In their published research, the Brinkmanns make this decision-making process abundantly clear, in a way that a short museum label cannot. ‘You were wrong about ancient sculpture’, the exhibition’s unstated conceptual underpinning, is a much easier notion to convey to visitors than the caveat ‘and we may be wrong too’. Here, the longevity of the project works to its advantage. It allows the Brinkmanns to update their models with some regularity – initially reconstructed in 2010, Phrasikleia herself was updated in 2019. The new model features richer shades of red, but also includes shiny gemstones inserted into a newly gilded belt. The object’s entry on the exhibition website makes the differences between models accessible to the public.[4] 

Although Chroma is a suitable celebration of the Brinkmanns’ scholarship, it is surprisingly quiet about its specific, twenty-first-century context. In fact, the Brinkmanns’ project is explicitly reparative. As Vinzenz himself put it, ‘in the nineteenth century and up until World War I, both scholars and the public knew that the ancient world was full of color. It was only through the new aesthetic that came to prevail in the first half of the twentieth century (nota bene: not the Bauhaus) that polychromy was suppressed’.[5] The allusion here is obvious: the suppression of ancient polychromy is inextricably linked to the racialised weaponisation of Classical Antiquity by Italian and German fascist regimes. The Brinkmanns’ awareness about their own position within this history is equally clear: it was ‘only through the students around Volkmar von Graeve’, the post-war archaeologist under whom the Brinkmanns studied, ‘that [scholarship on ancient polychromy] has been revived’.[6] 

These political dimensions of the Brinkmanns’s project enhance, rather than diminish, the vibrancy of their scholarly agenda. In that sense, for all the benefits of juxtaposing their reconstructions with the Metropolitan Museum’s Greek and Roman antiquities, those exhibited in Chroma would be just as impactful if placed alongside works by post-war German artists equally determined to address the lingering legacies of the Second World War. Like the blurry photo-paintings of Gerhard Richter, the Brinkmanns’s statues highlight their own processes of mediation as a way of undermining claims to a universalising truth: in both cases, pigments advertise their ability to make things appear lifelike, but they ostentatiously refuse to do so. Contextualising the Brinkmanns within the German art world also helps us appreciate the boldness of their vision as public intellectuals. This is recognisable in their decision not to give up on figural sculpture as a pedagogical tool – whereas photography and painting were able to free themselves of their historical baggage in the post-war decades, German sculptural production never did. For these reasons, Chroma speaks volumes about the Brinkmanns’ determination to carve a completely new way of embodying Classical ideals for museum-going audiences, in Germany and across the world. 

[1] See V. Brinkmann and R. Wünsche, eds: exh. cat. Bunte Götter: Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur, Munich (Staatliche Antikensammlung und Glyptothek) 2003–04. After opening at the Glyptothek, Munich, in 2003, previous versions of this exhibition travelled to various European countries, most recently the Liebighaus, Frankfurt (30th January 2020–26th September 2021). Various editions of the catalogue were published to coincide with the showings. 

[2] See, for example, M. Talbot: ‘The myth of whiteness in Classical sculpture’, The New Yorker (22nd October 2018), available at the-myth-of-whiteness-in-classical-sculpture, accessed 13th February 2023; and S. Bond: ‘Whitewashing ancient statues: whiteness, racism and color in the ancient world’, Forbes (27th April 2017), available at https://www. whitewashing-ancient-statues-whitenessracism- and-color-in-the-ancientworld/? sh=3ca306975ad5, accessed 13th February 2023. 

[3] With the exception of the sphinx from the Metropolitan Museum, the objects on which the reconstructions are based are not included in this exhibition. 

[4] See search/853784, accessed 10th February 2023. 

[5] See V. Brinkmann: ‘Looking back on 40 years of research’, available at www. years-research, accessed 13th February 2023. 

[6] Ibid.