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Ancient statues reveal their true colours

Garish colours and trashy paint jobs: Culcher uncovers the sustained misconception on Classic scultpures

Imagine for a moment that you’re standing in Ancient Greece. Theatres, temples, and statues, which survive to us only as ruins, stand intact all around you, white marble gleaming in the Mediterranean sun.

Now, get rid of that mental image entirely – crumple it up and throw it in the trash. Contrary to popular assumption, Greek and Roman marbles were almost exclusively painted, usually in bright and contrasting colours which rendered the sculpture more conspicuous at a distance. The pervasive image of Greek marble sculpture as pure, austere, blank, and imposing has been exploited for its iconic status by a number of people from Adolf Hitler, appropriating Myron’s discus thrower as the epitome of the ideal male, to Kanye West, appealing to the emotive nature of Late Classical Greek sculpture in his music video for “No Church in the Wild”. It takes a considerable amount of mental readjustment to imagine the vibrancy of colour that would have been present, for example, on freestanding sculpture, grave reliefs, and temple decorations.

The Greek playwright Euripides tells of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman on earth, who expresses her wish to be ugly as a desire to be like a sculpture from which the paint has been rubbed off. This is how most classic sculpture survives to us now, and thus it should come as no surprise that the exact opposite view was cultivated by collectors of ancient sculpture: blank marble is ‘pure’, whereas painted marble looks trashy. ‘The antiquities of Athens and other monuments of Greece’, first published in 1762, but reprinted in several editions throughout the 19th century, gives a delightfully dated description of painted marble, expressing great dismay at the “vile practice” of using “glaring colours” to create “violent contrasts”, which “gives a strange contradiction to our cherished notions concerning the purity of Grecian taste.”

Indeed, our surviving collections of Greek and Roman sculpture have often suffered from this perceived “purity of Grecian taste” as dated restoration practices involved the use of harsh chemicals and abrasives to remove any traces of paint from the marble.

A great scandal arose around the methods of restoration used on the Parthenon marbles at the British Museum in the 1930s, which allegedly removed not only dirt but original paint in an effort to make the marble perfectly white. Nowadays, it is well known that ancient marble was painted and this sort of intentional damage is much lamented. Ironically, however, most people who haven’t studied art or classics have no reason to know any of this, inadvertently perpetuating extremely dated views. The notion that Classical Greek art is some sort of aesthetic paradigm, characterised by the use of ‘pure’ marble as a medium, lingers in the popular consciousness despite no longer being a view subscribed to explicitly by scholars. How does one change the common perception, especially when it no longer survives in its original form? While popular culture has a great influence on our perception of ancient cultures (compare for example the appropriation of Norse gods by the Marvel franchise), museums also determine the way in which we view a piece of art by determining the context in which it is displayed.

The Ashmolean is one example of how museums are increasingly including reconstructions of painted marble in their displays; you can go see a painted reconstruction of the ‘Prima Porta’ statue of the emperor Augustus in the Ashmolean’s cast gallery.

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