Why does the eye love what it loves? How is visual taste formed? How deeply entrenched is it?
For most artists, it’s a mystery why we gravitate to one style of art over another—why we use vibrant colors, or work only in black and white; why we favor abstraction versus realism; why we strive for simplicity or relish the baroque. There are a million influences, from our earliest exposure to art, to our education through institutions, to osmosis through contemporary culture. There are styles and aesthetics that we absorb, and, consciously or not, tend to mimic. They feel “right.” Our inclinations develop, we trust them and we move forward with our work.
But recently, I’ve been questioning that trust. Taking a closer look at my visual tendencies, I’m surprised by what I’ve discovered about how they were formed, particularly when it comes to art history.
A few years ago, I started working in sculpture. Early in my process, I began visiting the vast galleries of ancient Greek and Roman antiquity at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The main, barrel-vaulted gallery is filled with gleaming white marble figures, all bathed in natural light. Here were the statues I’d studied in Art History 101—rock stars of antiquity, all within inches of me. I visited the galleries repeatedly; the sculptures’ power and allure, already embedded in my consciousness, gained an even stronger foothold.
Then I came across an article in the October 29, 2018, issue of The New Yorker titled “Color Blind.” In it, writer Margaret Talbot describes the well-known but persistently ignored truth about Greek and Roman marble figures: most were originally painted in their entirety, and the colors were bright. In fact, based on historical documentation, along with technologies capable of identifying remaining pigments, the presence of color is now indisputable.
Polychromy—the painting of objects in various hues—in ancient sculpture was first discovered by those who performed the earliest excavations in the cities surrounding Mount Vesuvius. But most of what has been excavated over the years has appeared to be devoid of color. Because of its exposure to the elements, the paint chipped off, and in many cases, the remaining traces of color were washed away as restorers and excavators eagerly cleaned what had been unearthed. As Talbot writes, “In the nineteen-thirties, restorers at the British Museum polished the Elgin marbles”—a collection of sculptures from Athens—“... until they were as white and shiny as pearls.”
The researcher Vinzenz Brinkmann, who has been studying polychromy since the 1980s, has used technology to determine original colors. Talbot writes that in the 1990s, he and his wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, began re-creating sculptures in plaster, resulting in a touring exhibition titled Gods in Color. Talbot refers to a statue on view: “A Trojan archer, from approximately 500 B.C., wears tight pants with a harlequin pattern that is as boldly colored as Missoni leggings.”
As I read the article, I recollected studies revealing antiquity’s colorful past that I had heard about but somehow forgotten. I had absorbed the myth—perpetuated for reasons that range from ignorance to malice—that the sculpture of Greek and Roman antiquity was pure white. I was curious to learn more, so I bought the catalog that coincided with Gods in Color’s recent showing at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco.
The beautifully produced hardcover is filled with reproductions of what sculptures might have looked like. The “old,” i.e., classical, white versions are shown alongside the color reproductions. It is jarring. The colors feel garish, the faces cartoon-like. I suddenly pictured the bright gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, no longer full of gleaming white figures but instead transformed, full of these vividly painted sculptures. It seemed impossible to erase my gut reaction of disapproval.
What happens when we revisit history and identify a mistake in how our aesthetic vision was formed? Do we stop and recalibrate? Are we able to undo what has been ingrained? Is it possible to retrain our eye, and intercept prejudgments?
On the radio program On the Media in 2015, Brooke Gladstone interviewed the writer John Keene about his collection of stories and novellas, Counternarratives. Keene remarks, “I was very interested in histories that are totally hidden, totally buried, totally obscured.” He tells Gladstone, “History never happens in isolation. Every story has a twin.”
Though Keene was talking about race and slavery, his words can be applied to any historical narrative. The question of how we acquire visual taste is not a superficial one. The aesthetics that we learn matter. When we are trained to see what is “right”—what is beautiful and tasteful and classical—anything else can seem less worthy, or worse, repugnant.
When one history dominates, it obscures and even erases the others. If I had been exposed to different histories, would I be a different artist? ca
© 2019 W. Richmond