Modern Mythology: Whiteness in Classical Antiquity

There is something beautiful about marble sculptures from classical antiquity— the archaic smiles, the contrapposto stances, the level of detail rendered in an unforgiving medium. For many, part of the aesthetic appeal is the gleaming white color of the statues, seemingly untouched by the ravages of time. However, an overwhelming majority of statues from antiquity were never intended to be white at all.

 In fact, the whiteness of sculptures from classical antiquity is little more than one of the world’s most popular myths. The vast majority of Greco-Roman sculptures were not only originally painted but were polychromatic— completely covered in bright, opaque color. In some cases, residue of the original paint jobs is apparent even to the naked eye. The Anavysos Kouros and Peplos Kore, for instance, both have obvious traces of pigment on various parts of their bodies. Still, even statues that appear white contain tell-tale mineral traces of pigments in a wide variety of bright colors.

On some level, the absence of pigment from these statues is an inevitable result of aging. Many of the statues were exposed to the elements for centuries, causing the colors to fade almost beyond recognition. Buried statues fared much better, but the pigment was often either hosed off or brushed away shortly after being unearthed due to the abrasive restoration and cleaning methods favored by previous generations of Western collectors and archaeologists. Fortunately, some archaeologists have spent much of the past few decades refining various techniques for identifying traces of paint. 

Some archaeologists have gone a step further and developed processes for creating colorful reconstructions of existing statues. One such exhibit that uses these techniques is known as “Gods in Color.” The exhibit, launched in 2003, has spent the better part of the last decade traveling the world, in an attempt to educate viewers on the colorful world of classical antiquity. The exhibit sparked a large controversy in the academic community. Many scholars acknowledged the value in noting that the sculptures were painted but criticized polychromatic exhibits for the painting techniques they used. For instance, one major criticism of “Gods in Color” is that the statues are made of plaster, which absorbs pigment much differently than the original statues would have. Additionally, some scholars argue that physical reconstructions fail to account for the personal artistic styles and techniques of the original artists, an integral piece of any artistic work. 

On the other hand, leaving the statues bare continues to visually propagate the myth that they were white, to begin with, reinforcing a false and deeply harmful association between whiteness and Western civilization. The Greco-Roman world was composed of people with a variety of skin tones, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds, a fact belied by the lack of representation in surviving sculptures from these eras. This absence of representation is also responsible for centuries’ worth of damaging standards that equate “Western” beauty with “white.” Perhaps even more insidious is that these standards remain pervasive in present-day cultural values, as evidenced by attitudes toward polychromy. For example, Fabio Barry, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University, complained that the colors in the “Gods in Color” exhibit are “unduly lurid.” Barry is not the only viewer that felt this way. Many viewers of another exhibit featuring painted reconstructions also felt that the “objects ‘look tasteless.’”

        It isn’t as if painting the statues takes them out of history— not all ancient sculptures blanched to the extent of Greco-Roman marbles. In any given gallery, select ancient civilization exhibits burst with color. For instance, the Ancient Egypt exhibit at the Louvre contains Seated Scribe, a brightly painted limestone sculpture with piercing eyes. In contrast, the Greco-Roman exhibits in all of these museums, including both the British Museum and the Louvre, contain mostly white sculptures, apart from a few surviving bronze originals. Most visitors do not bat an eye at this; it seems only natural that the Greco-Roman statues would lack color. In fact, critics of the “Gods in Color” exhibit commented that it felt strange that the statues were painted.

         In reality, the only reason why it feels natural for Seated Scribe to be brightly painted and why it would feel strange— almost garish— for Venus de Milo to be anything other than white boils down to one deeply misinformed cultural belief. Modern society has linked color only to civilizations deemed “not western.” This flawed reasoning completely ignores the diversity present in antiquity and raises challenging questions about what western civilization even means, which is especially troubling considering the popular celebration of Greece as the birthplace of democracy. After all, both the ancient Greek and Roman empires are referred to as touchstones of western civilization, even though their territory included significant portions of North Africa and Asia— both regions that are typically excluded when describing “the west.” Additionally, even though neither Greeks or Romans based identity groups off of skin color, they did recognize different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, and artists “tried to convey the color [of people’s] flesh.”  Thus, the impacts of misrepresenting the relationship between color and sculpture in antiquity extend beyond propagating historical inaccuracy; it contributes to white-washing history, a practice that is deeply harmful to people of color, both through depriving them of the same opportunities as their white counterparts to psychological issues such as extreme anxiety. 

A prime example of this harm is the legacy of Johann Joachim Winckelman, an 18th-century German scholar who is often referred to as “the father of Hellenic archaeology.” Winckelman was very influential in the realm of archaeology and art history and wrote many books that influenced generations of art historians and archaeologists. However, Winckleman’s aesthetic ideals centered around whiteness. At one point he wrote that “the whiter the body is, the more beautiful.” He also actively denied the presence of polychromy in antiquity, often attributing artifacts that had pigment on them to other cultures, such as the Etruscans. In addition, Winckelmann espoused many Eurocentric views and “regularly denigrated non-European nationalities.” All of Winckelman’s actions not only affected peoples’ attitudes towards color and sculpture during his lifetime but also contributed to the near-total erasure of color and diversity in classical antiquity almost 200 years later. 

The next time I visit a museum with my family or friends, I want to see a more accurate depiction of classical antiquity, one that challenges previous beliefs about art and the idea of western civilization. This change might mean devoting more funding to making painted reconstructions, but it could also mean a much smaller change, like including more visible and accessible information about the polychromatic history of the statues in the exhibit. Ultimately, I want people to see that the Greco-Roman world was not so very different from what our world strives to be— a world with a rich, diverse cultural landscape where people of all skin tones and backgrounds are represented— in society and in art.

Categories: Arts, Culture

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