How often do you get to see an art exhibit that completely changes the way you imagine the past? Well, that’s exactly what Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco does. If you, like I and so many others, have this idea that ancient classical Greek and Roman art and architecture was created to be heavy on the gleaming white marble and for the most part devoid of any additional color, this exhibit will quite literally BLOW your mind.
Reconstruction of Thalia, 2016 (Original: Greek, 2nd Century BC)
Turns out that color was a HUGE deal and used to embellish, animate and provide a narrative. Our misconceptions of everything being white on white are partly a result of the elements and time washing away the once vibrant colors that covered pretty much everything that was made way, way, way back in the classical day.
Reconstruction of Head of Warrior From Temple of Aphaia, 2005/2009 (Original: Greek, ca. 480 BC)
Perhaps another part of why it never occurred to most of us that color could have possibly played such an important role in Greek and Roman classical art and architecture has to do with the biases of certain Renaissance artists who came centuries later. For example, Leonardo da Vinci deemed it “barbaric” if a sculptor couldn’t breathe life into a piece without the use of color. Also, artists from the Renaissance and Neoclassical eras where inspired by ancient works whose colors had faded away because of constant exposure to the elements, which explains why white marble became so ubiquitous in their own work.
Reconstruction of Section of Pediment of Temple of Aphaia, 2005 (Original: Greek, ca. 480 BC)
So how is it that evidence has been found that is now able to establish that color was actually HUGE with the Greeks and Romans in antiquity? Thanks to excavations that uncovered pieces that had been shielded from the elements and thus retained color as well as scientific methods used to examine residue on pieces to determine whether what now is plain was once colorful.
Many of the recreations still feature lots of white, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that those parts weren’t also covered in color, it just means that there isn’t enough evidence left of what color they might have been.
What makes the Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World exhibit so mind-blowing is that it includes recreations of Classical sculpture covered in their original bright colors. It’s one thing to be told that color was used and a completely different thing to experience the effect of color as you stand in front of piece and compare it to the same piece without color. It’s like WOW!
Reconstruction of Caligula, 2005 (Original: Roman, AD 37-41)
Head of Bearded man Roman, mid-1st century AD
Reconstruction of Treu Head, 2014 (Original: Roman, ca. 140-150 AD)
I mean just look at these three heads. The one in the center is an original piece that has no visible trace of color left on it; it’s flanked by two recreations that feature what their original colors would have been. Tell me that the effect of the colors doesn’t make a difference. It absolutely does.
Head of Riace Warrior Reconstruction, 2013 (Original: Greek, ca. 440 BC)
The exhibit also includes examples of colors used on bronze that are amazing.
Riace Warrior Reconstructions, 2016/2015 (Originals: Greek, ca. 440 BC)
Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World
October 28, 2017 – January 7, 2018
Legion of Honor
100 34th Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94121
I showed you mine, now show me yours.
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