All too lively. On colour, line and polychrome sculpture.

At the moment I am preparing a paper for a seminar on antique polychromy in sculpture. Not really my field of expertise but I will be talking about something closer to my usual sphere: the 18th Century and how artists and art theorists felt about the to them appalling discoveries of how antique sculpture was in fact painted in bright colours.

Until at least mid-19th Century many art theorists saw all art as having two undercurrents. A piece of art could mainly be borne by line or by colour. Extensive theories have been written on the nature of line (a.k.a form)  and colour, how they are opposites and how they can be joined harmoniously.

I’ll give you some examples of what kind of paintings can be regarded as primarily colour based and primarily line based:

Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Love, 1632. Rubens is one of those masters who was not that interested in making a clear delineation between the different units of the composition. His priority lay in rendering the texture of the fabrics and the softness of the landscape realistically, and in doing this colour and the differentiating of it were his prime tools.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Doni Tondo, c. 1506. Michelangelo liked his colours too, but look how easily discernible the contours are. Nothing is blurred, the borders between the bodies and their surroundings are clear and everything seems fenced in by lines.

In many of the theories colour seems to be the saucy one of the two – the one connected with sensuousness, touch and life itself here and now. When you see the blood below the skin colouring the surface and adding a sense of pulsation, the painted figures seem more realistic and closer to life. Which is all very well if it wasn’t exactly what many art theorists saw as the last thing art ought to be. Instead of living creatures art should show us eternal and worthy truths – something beyond everyday life and in the realm of noble reason. So best give the line prominence since that was connected with thought and cool enlightenment.

Now, during the 18th Century there was yet another revival of the antique ideals art history has seen several of (most famous one being the renaissance). Pompeii was excavated, clever people wrote learned books about antique art, artists looked to Rome and Greece for inspiration. One art historian, J.J. Winckelmann, wrote some very famous books about the ancients and their art. He thought Greek sculpture was the high point of art (just too bad he thought all those Roman copies were Greek, but anyways…) and that their perfect form and perfect whiteness were to be emulated and admired. White was the colour of perfection. The whiter the better because white reflects the light better and makes the shape and contour (line again) of the sculpture even clearer.

What Winckelmann did not know or failed to acknowledge was one tiny detail: The sculptures were white only because time and some keen cleaning ladies had washed away the bright colours that once adorned these sculpture. Oh, the horror – the shock when that was discovered! And why? Because now the noble Greeks appeared to have debased themselves by using sensuous, cheap colour on those perfect white statues. Colour that only common people and riffraff needed to enjoy art. Just look at how they gorged themselves on the wax dolls of Madame Tussaud – the only coloured ‘sculpture’ in sight at the end of the 18th Century.

My paper will be about the trying truth of polychrome sculpture in the period 1750-1860. The period in which the discovery was made and in which artists slowly adapted from the whiteness of neoclassicism to a more eclectic and colourful sculpture.

Bertel Thorvaldsen. The Graces. 1817-18. Thorvaldsen and Antonio Canova were the prime exponents of regulated, line-focused neoclassicist sculpture.
Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, Jewish Woman of Algiers, 1862. This Frenchman was not afraid of colour nor of mixing materials. This bust is made of Algerian onyx-marble, bronze, gilt bronze, enamel, amethyst and white marble.

Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, Jewish Woman of Algiers, 1862. This Frenchman was not afraid of colour nor of mixing materials. The bust is made of Algerian onyx-marble, bronze, gilt bronze, enamel, amethyst and white marble.

Even today we may feel our heart sink at the sight of the reconstructions of antique polychrome sculpture.

Reconstruction of original polychromy of the Augustus of Prima Porta (2002–3)
Reconstruction of original polychromy of the Augustus of Prima Porta (2002–3)

But I’m sure the ancients were as good with a paintbrush as they were with the chisel. The reconstructions are based on tiny scraps of paint and can tell only little of the shading and variety of the tinting. And the wax? Well we still have Madame Tussaud and it’s still kind of connected with a simple pleasure and low attraction (or is that just me?). Wax scares the hell out of us because it comes so close to the real thing. Numerous horror flicks have been made in and about wax museums. One in 1933:

The Mystery of the Wax Museum. The film had the tagline: Images of wax that throbbed with human passion! Almost woman! What did they lack?

The Mystery of the Wax Museum. The film had the tagline: "Images of wax that throbbed with human passion! Almost woman! What did they lack?"

So you see even in 1933 coloured sculpture was connected with passion and something uncannily close to being alive. Today we waver between yet other horror movies like House of Wax with Paris Hilton in a leading part and the marvelous silicone works by an artist like Ron Mueck.

Ron Mueck, Boy, 2000

It seems like polychrome sculpture is here to stay…

/anna

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4 Responses to All too lively. On colour, line and polychrome sculpture.

  1. Cate says:

    Absolutely educational! I loved this piece you wrote, but then I enjoy art history. I learned that the ancient Chinese painted the famous Terracotta Warriors in blues and reds but the colours faded within 30 minutes of being exposed to sunlight.

    I think you hot the spot with your reference to bad taste and Madame Tussauds and no, it’s not just you.

  2. anninateatime says:

    Hi Cate

    Yes some chemical processes start when you dig out a sculpture from the earth and expose it to the air and sunlight. I’ve even heard that colour scraps seem to deteriorate faster in the stabile climate of museums. Really problematic that the few remains are slipping through our fingers as we watch. But at least the museums have gone from scrubbing sculptures to researching in colour and the preservations of them. That makes a huge difference of course!

    Madame Tussaud is soooo off. And it isn’t less funny when you realise how old that institution is. It’s like if we still had those shows with camera obscura images that people went to before the movies took that market…but Tussaud just goes on like one big tourist trap anachronism. Kind of wonderful.

    /anna

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