In Living Color?
Chroma Brings the Brinkmann Reproductions of Ancient Art to the Met.
One day in Italy, while walking past a tourist knick-knack shop, I decided that it wouldn’t be so bad to have a little Michelangelo Pietà statuette. It is a nice statue; it’s kind of cool that the title of the work is “Compassion” (Pietà in Italian), a thing well worth contemplating and keeping in mind; its famous signature is a testament to the value of uncompromising work and self-improvement. “Maybe I could get one for my desk,” I thought. “Maybe a pair could be used for bookends.” I stepped into the shop.
They had them; they had bunches of them, from about the size of a quarter, and suitable for a keychain, to about the size of a melon, and usable as bookends. There was only one problem: they were all terribly ugly. The proportions were all wrong; the faces looked inept; they weren’t the Pietà in miniature, they were poor copies that could not reproduce the virtues of the original. They couldn’t even suggest, to the viewer, the virtues of the original. I kept my wallet in my pocket and I stepped out.
This is not to say there aren’t good reproductions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art used to sell a fine head of Mary, from the Pietà; it was very nicely done — and priced accordingly. It’s still standard issue for a certain sort of Catholic lawyer or executive with artistic pretensions in NYC offices. There are also bookend-sized reproductions which are perfectly acceptable, which you can find online. They just aren’t sold nowadays in Italian tchotchke shops.
I offer these remarks as a way of understanding Chroma, the exhibit of ancient polychromy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibit, which runs until March 2023, places seventeen reproductions of ancient works of art in the Greek and Roman galleries. The Met has for almost a century avoided using reproductions of works of art in its galleries, despite having put together one of the finest collections of casts in the world and despite the obvious pedagogical value of three-dimensional reproductions, as opposed to the two-dimensional ones our students are used to seeing (much of the collection has been dispersed to educational institutions, so some students, thankfully, are getting the chance to work with them). Here they have made a welcome exception to their general rule. As is often the case with these reproductions, the Chroma reimaginings have pedagogical value. Unfortunately, their value can be reduced almost to one simple exclamation: ancient sculptures were often painted! If you know this already — and let us be honest, most people do not — there is little value in this exhibit, except to remind you that when it comes to reproductions, there are good reproductions, and there are bad reproductions. Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, who did the Chroma reproductions, do bad ones.
What do I mean by bad? We can start with material. Material is crucial to art; it is standard practice all over the world to identify the materials used in a work of art, because they are so determinative. The ancients themselves practiced this: they went to almost incredible lengths to secure the proper materials for their works of art. They brought multiple-ton blocks of marble from selected quarries, moving them at incredible expense over poor roads with draft animals, loading them onto boats and transporting them to artist workshops; the finished products were also frequently transported immense distances. The Greeks only rarely used granite, even though it was a preferred carving stone of the Egyptians and was available, and for fine work — of the sort we now have in our museums — used little of the region’s tufas and sandstones and limestones. Their insistence on using marble at great cost is explicable only if they thought it would make a discernible difference in the final product — either because they intended to leave the marble unpainted, and wanted the look of the marble, or because the pigments would look superior on marble.
This would be a fine topic for a pedagogical display at a museum — showing how ancient pigments look on different stones and surfaces. It is irrelevant to Chroma, where plastics (the term of art is polymethyl metacrylate) are used. If this were a carefully chosen plastic alternative designed to mimic the way marble absorbs pigment at a lower price point, it would be a respectable curatorial choice. But it is not. Zachary Small, in his critical article describing Chroma for the New York Times, reports that marble was rejected as a medium; “the couple claims that its alternatives are cost-effective and have more impact on viewers [my emphasis].” In other words, the material used for these reproductions is chosen to be cheap, shocking, and tacky— even if it is inaccurate.
The most satisfying items in the exhibit are the few bronzes, because at least for the reproductions they have used bronze. The bronzes go astray, however, as soon as the paint is applied. The color choices — fire engine red lips, plastic blue eyes of the Beanie Boos type you find at Walgreen’s, blood twisting out of cuts like red worms — look like children’s versions of the originals.
The paintjobs on the plastic statues do not resemble ancient painting in any particular. Large blocks of uniform color, without visible brush strokes and without shadows, reinforce the impression of modern cheapness, of tourist-shop knock-offs which obscure the fine workmanship that makes the originals so valuable. They certainly do not suggest ancient painting. In the same galleries, one can find real ancient paintings, such as the Perseus and Andromeda from Boscotrecase. The painting is hardly the finest we have from the ancient world; but certain traits make it indisputably antique. Perseus’s skin is never treated as a block of color, but ranges from very near black to very near white, with every gradation in between; the rocks, Andromeda, her dress, her veil — all are treated with a range of colors. Not even the sky is treated as a block of color. You cannot simply assign a paint by number sequence to ancient painting.
Tourist tchotchkes have an excuse for a paint-by-number approach: they have to be produced at a terribly low price point. A reproduction which goes into the Metropolitan Museum or Art enjoys a far larger budget, and should be subjected to far higher standards. One is left with the general impression that the real message of Chroma is a kind of intellectual vandalism: “Really, you thought those ancients could create beautiful things? No, we will show you that they had no artistic taste whatsoever.”
Let no one think that I am against painting statues, or even that I find the idea repellent or strange. I am a Catholic, and we Catholics have been painting our statues since Roman days. If you go around the Grand Staircase to the Medieval wing of the Met, you will find Catholic statues painted so wonderfully that someone decided to purchase them and display them in the Museum — without any controversy about polychromy. If you go into one of the many Catholic churches I have attended, you will find some painted statues you would put in a museum, and many that you would not. But even the poorly painted ones are superior — in combination of material and workmanship — to the reimaginings shown at Chroma.
To close, let me tell you of another encounter in Italy, this time not with a reproduction but with a real ancient painted statue. One day, I visited the Museo Archeologico in Formia. Walking through the galleries, I caught sight of one statue through the corner of my eye and gasped: I thought for a moment I was looking at a real person. The painted pupils were still preserved on the marble, as well as some of the eyelashes. I took a photo, which only partially captures what I saw: still, you can see how even the shine of the pupil is reproduced; the effect is to make the statue far more lifelike. The blue eyes found in statues such as the bronze runners from the Villa of the Papyri show the same tendency. That this was a value for ancient artists is attested by Pliny, who speaks of a painter winning a painting competition by painting a veil so effectively he prompted his competitor to shout, “Now unveil your painting!” This is not a goal for the Chroma reproductions, which seek a cartoonish simplicity of color, with the unsupported belief that color, in itself, represented a value for ancient artists. The creators of the exhibit, Brinkmann and Brinkmann-Koch, have confessed that their goal is “impact.” Hopefully, when the Met brings in museum-quality reproductions of ancient works of art to show how ancient polychromy worked, this style of reimagining, where impact was more important than accuracy, will be dismissed as mere Brinkmannship, tourist-quality knock-offs that managed to make it for a few unfortunate years from the kitsch shops to the galleries.