Deconstructing monochronism in ‘Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World’

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco /Courtesy

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Remember the last time you went to a museum or botanical garden? Were there marble sculptures scattered around the galleries or bronze statues as centerpieces for fountains? You could even think about the last time you drove through a neighborhood with homes dramatically adorned with marble lion statues. There probably aren’t any soft skin tones, red patterns or blue fur in your recollection.

Somehow, since the Renaissance and Neoclassical eras, a misleading idea is still carved into the 21st century — that the ancient world had a singular focus on austere bronze or stark white marble sculptures. Yet historians and artists have been wary of the integral role of colors in ancient Greek, Roman and Mediterranean civilizations for centuries.

More than 250 years ago, art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann acknowledged polychromy, the use of many colors in an art piece, in ancient sculptures.

The Legion of Honor is hosting “Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World” in order to reimagine the sculptures with their original pigments. In effect, the exhibit deconstructs the myth of monochronism in the ancient works of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome.

Admittedly, it’s startling and almost disillusioning to see classical structures and artworks, so often stripped of all color, in vivid, contrasting colors of blue, yellow and red. But it’s simultaneously an eye-opening and enlightening experience to see light flesh tones in the grave statue of Phrasikleia Kore and bright colors in the west pediment, the upper triangular space, of the recreated facade of the Grecian Temple of Aphaia.

The exhibit compiles decades of research carried out by archaeologists Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann and a collaborative effort with Renée Dreyfus, curator in charge of ancient art and interpretation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF). Dreyfus is also an alumna of UC Berkeley.

Immediately, the illusion of a monochromatic Greece is ruptured at the entrance of Rosekrans Court gallery in the Legion of Honor museum. Two large reconstructions of Grecian Riace Warriors guard the exhibit and exemplify how polychromy was also achieved in bronze sculptures by differentiating metal materials — copper for nipples and lips, silver for teeth and gold for helmets and shields.

Behind the large statues, a large mural based on Italian artist Simone Pomardi’s depiction of the Temple of Aphaia serves as a backdrop for the reconstruction of the temple’s west pediment. Bright yellows, reds, greens, browns and blues signified the Trojan identity of figures within the architectural element, proving how colors were a vital part of the story being told in these sculptures.

Works such as the reimagined grave statue of Phrasikleia should not be taken at face value, as the natural pigments would have better suited the surface of marble originals. Under the lighting of the exhibit, the reconstructed works can often look like cheap imitations.

The modern reconstructions, however, allow viewers to quickly travel through vastly different time periods and get a sense of how the sculptures were meant to be seen.



Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco/Courtesy

Next to a marble fourth century Grecian statue of a crouching lion, a 2012 reconstruction of another lion casually sits in repose on a white pedestal as if 2300 years have not passed by. Without the reconstruction, it would be impossible to determine, through the naked eye, that the mane of the lion could have been blue.

In the adjacent gallery, a plaster cast of a relief is mounted a little above eye level in plain white before a projector lights the sculpture up with the intended colors that were once seen on the north frieze of the Parthenon.

This experience is further contextualized by 19th century watercolors from Pomardi and Edward Dodwell. Landscape paintings of a crumbling Parthenon are reappropriated as historical records for the rising fascination of the classical antiquities, and they are one of the earlier recognitions of polychromy among European scholars.

Another one of the exhibit’s shining moments can be found in its recognition of Mediterranean influences upon the Greek and Roman artworks. Numerous examples of Shabtis, or mummiform figurines, show how the use of lifelike color had long existed before Greece adopted a colorful preference.

“Gods in Color” will help remind and teach the public how ancient artists such as Alexander Sarcophagus imbued their works with color with greater nuance.

The exhibit is not only a demonstration of the technological feats achieved in the 20th and 21st century, but is also indicative of our ever-growing appetite and need to question our understanding of the past.

It would not be surprising if another exhibit like “Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World” appears again in another to remind us that things were never just in black and white, but were always in bright and complex colors.

“Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World” will be exhibited at The Legion of Honor from Oct. 28, 2017 to Jan. 7, 2018

Contact Lloyd Lee at [email protected].