Unadulterated whiteness is an essential component of Winkelmann’s interpretation of classical statuary and the search for the flawless, snow-white marbles by Neo-classical sculptors indicates that artists who measured the success of their work by the degree to which it adhered to classical conceptions of beauty felt that anything other than a clean, monochrome finish was an unthinkable violation of <i>le goût grec</i>. The restrained good taste of this late 18th-century conception of antiquity is compelling and still very much with us.
It is also completely wrong. In the early 19th century, a preponderance of irrefutable, archeological evidence forced Europeans artists, critics and collectors to accept the disturbing proposition that ancient sculpture and architecture was not only painted, it was polychromed in garish, high-key, saturated colors.
Ancient texts about art production had alluded to sculptors “painting figures,” leading some scholars to suspect that ancient sculpture was painted, but the conclusive evidence for polychromy was discovered by French architect and archaeologist Jacques-Ignace Hittorff, while he was excavating the archaic temple precincts in Agrigento, Segesta and Selinunte. Archaic Greek art had been largely ignored in the early modern period, when the taste for classical and Hellenistic art prevailed. Methodical digging at the sites in southern Italy, Sicily and, later, the Athenian Acropolis itself, unearthed fragments of kouroi and kore statues, and deposed stones from Doric temples that retained traces of polychromy.
While working in Paris in the late 1820s, German architect Gottfried Semper became aware of Hittorff’s controversial theory, and after returning to Germany to assume the seat of Professor of Architecture in Dresden, he published his Vorläufige Bemerkungen (1834), wherein he argued that Archaic Greek architecture was polychromed so that it would visually accord with the quality of light he observed in the Mediterranean.
Hittorff promulgated an even more noxious threat to the Neo-classical model in his monumental study, La Restitution du temple d’Empédocle à Sélinonte, ou l’architecture polychrôme chez les Grecs (1851), where he fully proved that archaic art was polychromed, providing 30 colored plates in support of his work, thus putting the evidence before the general public for the first time, and he speculated that his theory could be extended to the classical period, a hypothesis that later generations or archaeologists subsequently confirmed to be true.
Over the last 100 years, the application of modern scientific technologies to the polychromy question has yielded a wealth of detailed information proving the near universal use of fill or partial polychromy in ancient sculpture, all of which Hittorff and Semper surmised merely by looking and thinking. Microscopic traces of colored paint have been found on masterpieces of greco-roman sculpture, such as the Augustus of Primaporta, that have been known and on view for centuries.
These discoveries led to the collaborative exhibition of polychrome reconstructions of well-known sculptures, called Bunte Götter (The Gods in Color),which traveled to 13 cities between 2003 and 2010. The initial encounter with the show’s loud, garish, even lurid, color-corrected figures was shocking, even visceral. The art of the Greeks, who invented philosophy, politics, aesthetics, history and logic, has, according to the restorers and curators more in common visually with the Simpsons and Pokémon than it does with Wedgewood. The familiar characters from AH101 all look like they just got back from Burning Man. The Chios Kore shared a wardrobe with Stevie Nicks and the Peplos Kore, previously assumed to be a sensibly-dressed maiden who wore flats, made the scene in Miami and Ibiza wrapped in a high-key, patterned yellow beach towel. H.W. Janson said that the deified Augustus was clad in body armor, when, in reality, he wears a skintight, Dolce & Gabbana spandex t-shirt with magenta and azure highlights. Janson didn’t mention the lipstick. When compared to the MDMA-induced Trojan archer or Cheshire Lion, Jeff Koons’ white sculptures look, well, Neo-classical.