White Marble, White Lies

In this post, Matthew explores polychromy in Classical sculpture, linking it with the Whitworth’s exhibition White Psyche.

The exhibition White Psyche challenges the normalisation of whiteness within art history by confronting the idealised depiction of the characters of Cupid and Psyche in a series of early 18th century French wallpapers. Drawing heavily on commonly held depictions of monochrome Classical sculpture and architecture that was closely linked to Western Empires, the works on display invoke the commonly held belief in the inherent whiteness of Greek and Roman art. This idealisation by Western artists has led to this cliché of white marble sculpture becoming heavily ingrained within society, yet it has long been known that these original Classical sculptures were, in fact, awash with colour. 

The revival of ideas from Antiquity during the Renaissance exposed Europe to not only philosophy and natural sciences, but also art and architecture. An idea of a ‘pure form’ associated with the whiteness of marble gained a foothold in Western art discourse. Works, such as the prints by Marcantonio Raimondi housed in the Whitworth’s collection, sought to prioritise form over colour, as this was believed to be an idea espoused by Classical sculpture. This trend of thought continued with Neoclassicism, as artists and architects harkened back to what they saw as the idealism of the Classical world. 

Marcantonio Raimondi (c.1480 c.1534) ‘Mars, Venus and Cupid’ (1508), the Whitworth, the University of Manchester.

Despite the immense influence of white marble sculptures the concept was, in large, a fallacy. Many sculptures that survive from antiquity have traces of colour pigment that can be used to recreate the original hues: those that were buried and later excavated were more likely to retain traces of colour as opposed to those that remained exposed to the elements. Antiquarians who discovered Classical sculptures sometimes referred to and made notes of the pigmentation they saw, yet the subtle traces of colour were often destroyed during the cleaning process, or by exposure following excavation. The French archaeologist, Quatremère de Quincy (1755 – 1849) referred to the polychromy of ancient sculptures as early as 1806. Indeed, one of the most ardent proponents of white antiquity, Johann Winckelmann (1717 – 1768) acknowledged shortly before he was murdered crossing the Alps (in what was likely a homophobic attack) that a statue of the goddess Artemis showing signs of colour pigmentation, discovered in the recently discovered ruins of Herculaneum and which he had originally attributed to Etruscan culture was, in fact, Greek in origin.

Even looking beyond the sculptural remains, literary evidence has survived from the Classical world that is suggestive of polychrome sculptures. The Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, relates a quote from famed 4th Century BCE Athenian sculptor Praxiteles whereby he says his most admired works ‘are those that have been touched by the hand of Nicias,’ a renowned painter at the time. Furthermore, the Athena Parthenos sculpture which used to stand on the Acropolis in Athens is described by the Roman geographer and traveller, Pausanias, as being decorated in gold and ivory. Plato also uses the colourisation of sculpture in the Republic as a metaphor for the ‘whole.’ In it, he relates that the most beautiful (and therefore expensive) colours are often not applied to the most beautiful parts of the statue. 

Merry Joseph Blondel (1781-1853), Louis Lafitte (1770-1828), Dufour et Cie, Paris (1804-1865), ‘Reconciliation of Cupid and Psyche & Cupid and Psyche Scene 11’ (1816) Gift of The Wall Paper Manufacturers Ltd, 1967

Modern scientific techniques have only solidified the case that many ancient sculptures were polychrome, ranging from X-Ray fluorescence analysis, Raman spectroscopy and L.E.D Lights cast at a specific angle to catch the contrast where there was once colour. Combined with 3-D printing techniques, this has allowed for accurate reconstructions to be produced, showcasing the sculptures as they were originally intended to be seen. The outcome of such work has been most vividly encapsulated in the Gods in Color touring exhibition.

In their original context, free from the shackles of static museum displays, Classical sculptures were displayed in busy, vibrant towns and sanctuaries. Often they were positioned high up on the facades of temples, where a rich colour palette would make them more easily viewable from ground level, or as part of city landscapes that were bustling with activity. They, in effect, would have formed part of the community, and been much closer to the ‘viewer’ then we are used to with works of art today.

Despite the historical discourse surrounding polychrome sculptures, adversity to it was strong. Auguste Rodin (1840 – 1917) was strongly against the idea that classical sculpture was anything other than monochrome. The assemblage of whiteness that permeated through museum and gallery spaces via allusions to classical sculpture in the 19th and 20th century resulted in the Elgin Marbles being polished to such an extent they shone almost pearl-like when originally displayed at the British Museum. The Whitworth itself opened in 1897 with an exhibition featuring white casts of Classical sculpture, photographs of which are in display in our exhibition Standardisation and Deviation.  

There is even evidence that some sculptures that had survived from Antiquity would be deliberately washed clean of pigmentation following excavation. Colour, such as that which survived in Ancient Egyptian sculpture thanks largely to the arid conditions, was treated as something ‘other,’ whereas whiteness was viewed as a norm, and deliberate actions were often undertaken by individuals and institutions to maintain that image.

This enforced a false sense of homogeneity that the ancient world was in some ways ‘white.’ Even though this process of thought only really developed during the Early Modern period, where emerging scientific thought sought to categorise the natural world, including humans, into easily distinguishable caveats. The idea of ‘race’ was much more fluid in the ancient world, and doesn’t really correlate to contemporary understandings of the terms. For instance, whilst slavery was prevalent in the Greek and Roman worlds, it was not chattel slavery based on race such as that undertaken by later European Empires, rather it was slavery based on circumstance, with the victims most likely being conquered peoples or the economically poor.

Merry Joseph Blondel (1781-1853), Louis Lafitte (1770-1828), Dufour et Cie, Paris (1804-1865) ‘The Parents of Cupid Consult the Oracle of Apollo & Cupid and Psyche Scene 1,’ (1816) Gift of The Wall Paper Manufacturers Ltd, 1967.

The description of someone’s skin was also more nuanced in Ancient Greece: In the Iliad and the Odyssey, to describe a woman’s skin as white is seen as a compliment, but to describe a man in a similar way would be taken as an insult: in fact, heroes such as Odysseus were associated with darker skin, as this was seen as derivative of more masculine traits (The Odyssey 16.175). Yet such notions of a White Antiquity have been commandeered by far right groups, and have on occasion been used as emblems of white nationalism.

In confronting this narrative, the exhibition White Psyche critically views the predominate portrayal of classical sculpture, and the influence it exerted. Ancient sculptures were not as they appear now, two thousand years or more after they were carved. Rather they were vibrant, colourful works that captured the nuances of life. 

Further Reading:






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