On Saturday, September 13th, a new exhibition about polychromy in ancient art opens at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoket in Copenhagen. It’s not the first time the museum has put on a show focusing on the vibrant colors of ancient art and architecture. Gods in Color was hugely popular, traveling from the Munich Glyptothek to the Carlsberg Glyptoket to the Vatican Museums in 2004 and then moving on to other countries in Europe, reaching the United States in 2007. New research and advances in technology since then have allowed for a more precise understanding of the evolution and extent of ancient polychromy, which is what Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour will explore.
The Ny Carlsberg Glyptoket has an extensive collection of ancient Mediterranean art (the largest in northern Europe, in fact), so between its own sculptures and loans from other museums, the exhibition features 120 original sculptures and color reconstructions, a geometric expansion of the 20 pieces in the 2004 exhibition. The interdisciplinary research traces the history of painted sculpture touching on the Egyptians much of whose painted works have survived, before zeroing in on Greek and Roman sculpture which was subjected to brutal destruction of its polychrome remnants by the post-Renaissance obsession with phony white marble Classicism.
The research underpinning the exhibition has been a cooperative enterprise of the museum with institutions like the Archaeology Foundation of Munich, home of the von Graeve research team in ancient color which has been pioneering the study of polychromy on Roman and Greek art and architecture since the 1970s. It’s an interdisciplinary pursuit pairing archaeologists with conservators, artists, and cutting edge technology like infrared reflectography and electron microscopy to identify and replicate the remnants of color on the original sculptures.
The exhibition at the Glyptotek shows spectacular original works juxtaposed with experimental reconstructions in their original wealth of colour, the shocking sensuality of which, at one and the same time, makes Antiquity both more present and remote. In the course of the exhibition the story of the development of colour in the art of sculpture unfolds; from the first, very insistent, but extremely effective use of strong local colours on marble, towards a higher and more refined degree of naturalism. At the same time the exhibition shows that our reading of the classical motifs sometimes changes radically when the sculptures appear in colour.
The Glyptotek has uploaded some nifty videos about the exhibition. First a simple introduction:
The next explains how we can tell that sculptures were painted, ie, by direct evidence — actual remnants of color visible to the eye — and indirect evidence — uneven weathering depending on the durability of the pigment, clearly missing elements in a relief that suggests they were once painted on, naturalistic inlaid stone eyes that would have been matched with naturalistic color on the rest of the figure.
In this video the artist experiments with a variety of natural pigments and binders, and then confers with the archaeologist and a conservator to decide which approach to take.
There is a fourth video that I gather describes how researchers scan the sculptures looking for microscopic traces of color, but so far it is only available in unsubtitled Danish. I’ve emailed the museum asking for an English version and I’ll update the post when I hear back. Meanwhile, here’s the original version which is still worth watching for the pretty pictures. If you can understand Danish, please do tell us what they’re saying in a comment or email me via the contact form.
The catalogue of the exhibition is available in English from the museum shop and online here for 249 Danish Krone, about $43. (That includes VAT but not shipping, which to the US is a gulpworthy 199 Krone, or $35.) It features articles by experts in the field with the latest research about ancient Roman and Greek polychromy and is “profusely illustrated.” Pardon me while I dab a lace hanky at my drool.
There’s also a coloring book so you can paint some of the sculptures in the exhibition to your own taste, but sadly you can only order it as part of a bundle with the Danish-language catalogue. I’ll tell you, I’m still tempted to get it even though it would push this venture well into the absurdly extravagant range. I just really, really love coloring, and it’s so irresistibly apt in this context.