As soon as I saw the prompt for this week’s #loveyourblog challenge, I knew I wasn’t going to write anything personal. Like a lot of people, my relationship to words like ‘pretty’ and ‘ugly’ is kind of complicated, and while I try to be honest in this space, that’s not a road I’m up to exploring at the moment.
It wasn’t until Saturday that I knew what I was going to write about for today. If you follow me on Instagram, you would have been slightly bombarded with pictures of me doing a tourist trail around my own city. I’d say I was sorry, but I had a great day! My most thought-provoking stop was at the Ashmolean Museum, where they have a small display of painted figures from antiquity, called ‘The Gods in Colour’.
Alternative interpretations of the same statue, with the ‘original’ in the middle.
Most people who studied Classics know that the beautiful white marble statues that we see in museums are far from authentic – I saw a painted statue for the first time in the Cast Gallery in Cambridge when I was 16, so this isn’t a new idea. This classical ideal of pure white marble and clean, elegant lines is a myth created by the scholars who found the statues. We know from Greek literature that statues were painted, but that didn’t stop some of the discoverers scrubbing them clean so that they better matched their ‘ideal’. Most of the sculpture would have been painted, and if the traces are anything to go by, the ancients were not afraid of colour.
An archer wearing truly magnificent stockings.
Given they had natural, bright pigments to work with, it’s not really surprising that the results were also bright and garish. What I did find surprising was the amount of patterning. Apparently they really, really liked their geometric shapes and weren’t scared to show them off.
Some of the pigments available in all their gaudy glory!
I really like seeing replica statues painted, because it challenges our idea of what we think is beautiful. To us, some of the colour and pattern choices suggest a distinct lack of taste on the part of the ancient Greeks and Romans, and yet much of what we think of as beautiful comes from their sculpture. It’s all over the place at the moment thanks to the British Museum exhibition and BBC programmes to go alongside and all illustrated with glowing white faces and bodies. Turning that on its head and pointing out that these people with their ideal bodies would have been daubed in paint patterns that sometimes look like they’ve been done by a colour-blind toddler is entertaining.
I had the distinct impression that this lion was looking at me in a funny way…
But, and this is why I’m not wholeheartedly recommending this exhibition if you want to know more about painted statues in the ancient world, the quality of the statues that they’d painted was something of a disappointment. I don’t know if it’s because they’re no longer allowed to literally take casts for fear of damaging fragile statues, but I found the painted works looked amateurish in the sculpting. Adding the unfamiliar paint job then just made things worse, and there were some pieces that I really did feel looked ugly, not for the paint job, but for the detail of the underlying piece. I think I also felt that the paint had been applied very flatly, particularly on the human figures, which I found odd. The Greeks knew how to sculpt figures and drapery to make them look almost lifelike. Why do we assumed they wouldn’t have painted them to match. It almost felt like a deliberate attempt to stress the strangeness of the statues, as though to poke people in the eye, saying “you think sculpture is white and shiny, I will show you different!” Greek art is constantly subtle and surprising, so to paint the statues with none of that felt off-kilter to me.
Painted or not, the original sculptures were made with a remarkable skill that the paint was supposed to highlight, not mask. I think I would have preferred to see Photoshopped pictures of the originals with colours on, rather than the slightly strange-looking replicas. Of course, my eye is attuned to see Greek sculpture as white marble, slightly weathered by time so that the surface has acquired a sheen and patina, rather than the gaudy colours of these casts. It’s entirely possible that the originals would have struck me as slightly odd as well!
Do I prefer the foreground-Augustus or the background-Augustus? I’m not sure that this exhibition helped me to work that one out!
Were the painted statues ugly? I’m still not sure I know. But I find looking at something I thought I knew and trying to see it differently a really valuable lesson.