Is there a link between racist ideology and the blinding whiteness of classical sculpture?
Did Leonardo da Vinci and his contemporaries whitewash classical statues, disfiguring them forever in the Western imagination?
According to Professor Vinzenz Brinkmann, an expert in Greek sculpture, the answer is yes, on both points.
Classical sculptures were not originally white
The Greeks and Romans often painted their marble sculptures in a wild, polychrome manner. But by the time they were unearthed, the color was gone – stripped of age, exposure and burial.
This lack of color was then propagated by Renaissance artists, a period carried by a “return” to classicism.
In his defense of painting as the quintessential art form (as opposed to sculpture), Leonardo da Vinci ruled out the possibility that marble and other surfaces could be painted and still be considered high art.
He did so despite the polychromy of one of the first ancient sculptures unearthed near Rome, the famous Laocoon group, in 1506 – the sensational discovery of which could not have been missed by Da Vinci.
Professor Vinzenz Brinkmann, archaeologist and expert in the field, explains that Vinci created a myth of whiteness which led to the abolition of polychromy in the 20th century.
It wasn’t so much a mistake as it was an aesthetic decision.
“There is a starting point for whitewashing … Leonardo da Vinci [and] Michelangelo began to promote the visual code of white marble, which was a complete lie, ”Professor Brinkmann said.
“Perhaps they did so to promote a visual code clearly separate from the old Christian code, which [was] colorful, ”he says.
“But nonetheless, he promotes white marble sculpture by explaining that the sculpture will never achieve the full feeling of a painting because it lacks color… He tries to establish a new truth.”
Whiteness – or more accurately, the absence of color – came to be equated with sublime beauty.
Michelangelo’s David was never painted, for example.
The color was seen as gloomy – exotic, garish, and somehow “alien”.
The irony, says Professor Brinkmann, is that the pigments used to color classical sculptures were often more prized than the marble they were carved from, imported from Spain, Africa, Turkey and Afghanistan.
Over the past 40 years, Brinkmann and his colleagues at Liebieghaus, a sculpture museum in the German city of Frankfurt, have attempted to recreate ancient sculptures as they were in their day – richly painted with rare pigments and high quality.
In the global traveling exhibition Gods in Color, replicas of ancient marble sculptures are rendered in glittering gold, dark purple, vivid blue, bright yellow and blood red – with a range of skin tones.
The consequences of whitewashing
In the 20th century, the assumed “whiteness” of these sculptures became a screen on which to project racist fantasies.
In Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, a particularly Roman form of classicism was deployed as a visual language in their fascist symbols and iconography.
Flawlessly beautiful, able-bodied and hypermasculine, classical sculptures today seem unusually exaggerated. Even the aquatic pythons strangling the torn Trojan priest Laocoon in the famous group sculpture appear to have been on the juice.
The ancient Greeks mostly represented immortal gods and partly divine heroes in their sculptures – they had the right to exaggerate.
The body itself has been aestheticized to such a degree that improbable figures have become symbols of idealized masculinity or femininity rather than naturalistic representations of the human form.
Yet, it can be argued that classical sculpture’s idealization of the human form still affects the way we view the body. The most popular event is surely in fashion magazines, Instagram profiles and the gym.
Likewise, the neoclassicism of many public buildings in the West – the aptly named White House is the obvious example – refers to the most exalted period in European history, when art, literature and philosophy flourished – as well as slavery, imperialism and war.
It’s no mistake that the classic is culturally and aesthetically aligned with power in the Western imagination – and that has a racial dimension, amplified in the 20th century.
“The aesthetic imprints of… fascism always resonate unnoticed,” says Professor Brinkmann.
“Political concepts have been abolished but not aesthetic concepts”, he argues.
“Just by looking at this question of polychromy, you understand that the ideology of laundering is linked – you cannot disconnect it from the evolution of fascism.”
Don’t blame the classic world
Whatever classic imagery is used, it’s basically our baggage, which we attach to the classic, according to Aimee Hinds, a postdoctoral student at Roehampton University in London.
“We are being sold a misconception of the ancient world here, especially through the claim that these sculptures are white, when that is absolutely not what they are,” says Hinds.
“It obviously becomes problematic when we add things that are not there, and we assume that these are things that come directly from the ancient world.”
What polychromy means to people of color
For first-generation Greek-Australian artist Yorgos Zafiriou, whose parents and grandparents emigrated in the 1960s, discovering the true history of classical sculpture as polychrome was a watershed moment.
“The discovery that Greek sculptures were not… white, immaculate… sent me on the road to [asking] “Well, what does contemporary Greekness mean? “.
“Greek culture spans such a huge amount of time that it’s difficult to create any kind of sense of… what true greicity is,” says Dr Zafiriou.
The reconquest of polychrome sculpture
Sri Lankan-born Australian artist Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran is known for his totemic, highly glazed sculptures and monumental installations, which feature bronze, concrete, fiberglass, LEDs and neon – and sometimes tissue and human hair.
Its modern deities are like emojis or avatars – extremely polychrome figures inspired by Christian symbolism and Hindu gods such as the blue-faced hermaphrodite Shiva and his wife Kali, the destroyer of evil.
At first glance, Nithiyendran’s work might look like the antithesis of classical sculpture.
But as a person of color, a craftsman and an academic, he is deeply aware of his heritage.
“Making the public understand that these things weren’t white, that they were polychrome – especially in our cultural climate of what people call ‘social and racial upheaval’ – is really important,” he says.
“Because, as people of color, we’ve always known that anything white – like involving something fancy or clean – has sinister racial implications.
“I wonder [whether] subtle changes in the way we engage with these kinds of objects could also alter the way people think about other issues. “