From the renowned, two-millennia-old Greek sculpture Venus de Milo, to the Roman reconstruction of the Apollo Belvedere, to today’s faux recreations and popular busts that litter tacky American hotels; the modern conception of sculpture from Greek and Roman antiquity has always been blanketed in a glimmering, marble white.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are still academics and art historians who would argue that Greco-Roman sculpture was characterized by its dedication to the tone of colourless marble. At the same time, archaeologists on digs throughout the Mediterranean have consistently unearthed piece after polychromic piece dated from antiquity.
In a widely-shared article published in the New Yorker on the same issue, an archaeologist articulates his surprise as a grad student when he discovered the colourful nature of countless sculpture fragments stored at a depot in Aphrodisias. The city was a thriving artistic centre of Ancient Greece, located in modern-day Turkey. He noticed that many of the sculptures were marked by hints of ancient pigmentation. Women’s’ lips painted with red, strands of hair highlighted by black, or even gilding intended to give colour to the object’s skin.
Mark Abbe, the archaeologist cited above, recollects the dejection and disappointment that dawned on him when he realized that since the excavation’s opening in 1961, sculptures have been extracted, restored, and in the process, bereft of any colour.
Historical accuracy be damned.
So that means that many among us have notions of Greco-Roman sculpture – an integral component of Western art history – that are falsified on a basic level. That is not only problematic for the sake of the respectful preservation and celebration of the traditions of Athens and Rome; the falsification has also been perpetuated by a post-Renaissance conceptualization of purity in art that has undertones of a frightening racialism.
If you sought to unearth the root of sculptural whiteness in art history, it certainly wouldn’t be in an excavation site in Greece or Italy. It can be tracked down to a much more recent period. White’s synonymy with purity rose to popular prominence in the early colonial period, when European powers were proliferating the globe and subjugating non-white peoples as they went. The shade’s sudden elevation to divine status did not appear out of any artistic revelation as much as it arose out of Eurocentrism and a culture of colonialism.
Johann Winckelmann, an 18th century German art historian, stands guilty of bolstering and perpetuating the whiteness myth. Known to have maintained racist attitudes towards non-Europeans, he argued in his two-volume history of ancient art, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums that colour was the mark of barbarism, and whiteness reserved for the sophisticated Greeks. His books, unfortunately, became a staple of Western art history and have influenced conceptions of sculpture ever since.
So, when you find yourself in an art gallery staring at a barren white sculpture date from antiquity, stripped down to its surface, imagine it in vivid colour as the sculptor almost certainly intended. Don’t be victim to the insecurities of a colonial era propaganda campaign.