Chroma, at the Met Paints Greek Marble With Ancient Color – ARTnews

As the Greek playwright Euripides tells it, princess Helen blamed herself for the tragedy of the Trojan War. If only she hadnt been so desirable a prize for Paris, she thinks.If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect, she says in The Trojan Women,The way you would wipe color off a statue!

Its a famous line from a famous play. So, why is color excluded from the popular imagination of ancient Greece and Rome?

The myth of both civilizations as paragons of whiteness is rooted in assumptions about race and Western aesthetics. Romans and Greeks were born around the Mediterranean and North Africa and while they recognized distinctions in skin tone, they didnt categorize their world by it like modern Western society. Rather, color carriedpoetic associations of health, intelligence, and integrity. (Take this much-dissected verse fromThe Odyssey,in which the goddess Athena beautifies Odysseus:He became black-skinnedagain, and the hairs became bluearound his chin.) Color equated to beauty, and ancient representation of the human form, the sinewy sort beloved in the Renaissance, weretypically painted with brilliant skin tones, hair colors, and outfits.

This isnt news. There is significant evidence of ancient polychromy from many colors, in Greek in marble, bronze, and terracotta figures. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder documented it in his Natural History; contemporaneous pottery and paintings corroborate this.Museum curators and art restorers simply cleaned traces of paint from sculptures out of deference for pure form.

Modern technology, however, has made it possible to identify and recreate millennia-old polychromy. The product isnt perfect, but it is immensely startling in person, and thats meant as a compliment.

See for yourself at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts new exhibition Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color, for which 17 painted recreations of ancient sculptures have been installed in the museums Greek and Roman galleries.

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Chroma, at the Met Paints Greek Marble With Ancient Color - ARTnews

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