I always love seeing this fact pop up. Yeah, what we thought was the ancients just being really cool and aesthetic was actually the gaudy colors fading away over time. It’s like when people think that old houses were built better than they are now, when it’s really just that the shitty houses all fell down already.
Ummmm but the problem is not so much that they weren’t being “cool and aesthetic”; it’s that this entire western concept of aesthetics is built on a mistake.
The ask was in response to this article, which makes it 200 times funnier.
fittingly, I was just reading this:
The Parthenon marbles Elgin took to Britain do consist of marble, but a darkly pitted Greek marble rather than the smooth, snowy white variety more common in Italy. Here lay an aesthetic problem: whiteness versus color. The alarming history of European marble “cleaning” includes a chapter on this statuary describing a drive to make ancient Greek art white that nearly destroyed the art itself. In the 1930s workers in the British Museum were directed to remove the dark patina with metal tools on the mistaken assumption that their proper color should be white. Such a “cleaning” seriously damaged the Parthenon marbles, prompting an inquiry by the museum’s standing committee that halted the work.
—Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People, page 63
It’s particularly obnoxious given the claims by so many British people that the marbles had to be removed to Britain in order to protect them.
The bold: People should really know about that, too.
And yes, it is connected with this article about Chromophobia and colonialism
which is also connected to the Reformation.
Especially if you think about (at least in an American context) the way that Catholicism has been, to a large degree, racialized. And how the Catholic Mass and other traditions came to be associated with licentiousness and was condemned for its use of decoration (aside form legitimate gripes with corruption).
see also: Calvinist Iconoclasm:
In the summer of 1566, spurred on by the sermons of Calvinist preachers, zealous mobs descended on churches in the Netherlands, intent on ridding them entirely of their imagery. Many churches were literally white-washed.
All of these things are connected.
reblogging for someone who recently asked about this.
Someone also asked about over-cleaning or modifications made to various Greek and roman works in European Possession.
British Museum: Over-Cleaning of the Elgin Marbles
British Museum: Public Response
Like, they were literally dipping them in acid to make them “pure and white” as they imagined they were “originally”.
As for the Met, you can read here just how far art curators are willing to go to modify artworks to fit their ideas on how they SHOULD look.
okay there’s a lot of crazy shit going on here like
yes the Greeks had lots of gaudy color
but when they were trying to keep the marble white they were doing it because they HONESTLY thought that was what it originally looked like and that’s the job of a conservator. and pure white marble is kind of hard to find and the ancients always used it, so it’s not CRAZY to think that that’s how they wanted
I mean for a long time people thought Michelangelo used dark and brooding colors to match his personality but then it turned out that the Sistine Chapel ceiling was covered in soot and his colors were bright as fuck LOL PEOPLE ARE WRONG SOMETIMES it happens. It’s sad when things get ruined in the process, but ruining out of trying to conserve seems better than what the Renaissance peeps did, which was decide that everything from the previous centuries was ugly and destroy it for fun.
The people that glorified ancient sculpture and revived the whole “clean white marble sculpture” thing were Renaissance artists who WERE mostly Catholic (idfk what this person is saying about the Reformation, because the Reformers were usually anti-art, not anti-a-certain-color-scheme). And they used really bright paints when they painted, but they felt that the unpainted marble was the way that it was done, so they did it (compare to medieval wooden painted sculpture). Plus it was the best medium for showing off their talent as sculptors. Like. Lookatthisart. Paint will just obscure the detail work going on there.
Also, it’s not that “Western aesthetics were built on a mistake”, as that doesn’t make ANY SENSE with any theory of aesthetics. We formed a new aesthetic in the Renaissance that was a significant departure from the Medieval, and it was not, as intended, a perfect revival of the ancient aesthetic. But you know what? That’s fine. We also now like things that the Renaissance would not have ever done.
Also holy shit I know I already made my point about the Reformers but white-washing churches was to get rid of ANY ICONOGRAPHY and ANY ART AT ALL IN CHURCHES. I mean, you can smash sculptures and stained glass windows (which they did) but if you have wall paintings, the easiest way to cover that shit is with whitewashing.
There are plenty of race issues in history but the Reformation’s feelings about church art doesn’t have shit to do with race, and if you can acknowledge that your point about racialized Catholicism is an 19th c American thing then JFC do not read it back into the 17th c Netherlands. CATHOLICS WERE COLONISTS TOO holyshit. I mean I can show you some really colorful really Catholic paintings of white people demolishing Moors and Indians if you want.
What happened to the Elgin marbles and Greek art is sad because we clearly are as concerned with “how it originally looked” as they were, but it’s based on a mistake, not a conspiracy. It’s also an older approach to conservation, which has become much more cautious and conservative in the last century.
Hmm, I think you really missed the point here.
We’re not talking about “Conspiracies”, we’re talking about how art and aesthetics figure into broad and sweeping trends in cultural history, specifically in Europe. There’s even a case to be made that this is distinct between Southern and Northern Europe, too. Certain ideas become VERY hardwired into the cultural consciousness, and thence into the personal consciousnesses of art historians, restorers, curators, and viewers.
There’s also a big difference in removing soot and dunking the Elgin Marbles in acid.
Actually the post above is a pretty good example of why this blog isn’t “pure” Art History; it’s Art Historiography. The devil’s in the details on this topic…
Take a look at the bolded:
OMG!!! I FORGET PEOPLE DON’T KNOW THIS!
Yes, all those aloof, “pure” white statues from Ancient Greece?
They actually looked like this:
Vinzenz Brinkmann, much to the apparent chagrin of Westerners everywhere, used ultraviolet light to reveal the original paint schemes of these statues that the millennia had washed away.
And to underscore the Chromophobia?
Check out this graphic that i09 made for their leading image for this story:
You can check out a video here to learn more about the methods used to discover the original paint schemes of these statues and reliefs.
and if you can acknowledge that your point about racialized Catholicism is an 19th c American thing then JFC do not read it back into the 17th c Netherlands.
^ That’s actually exactly what this blog does.
Art History looks at disparate pieces, each only it its own context, in a sort of logical vacuum where it can only be analyzed for itself, and the range of comparison is narrow. The focus is on technique, and symbolism. And that’s fine, for what it is. But there are some really dissonant and outdated ideas still being accepted as canon in the Art History community, especially at the general/broad level. Moreover, Art History only goes into the cultural forces that contributed to the creation of the work of art, and its function in the society it was created in.
Art History does not acknowledge how these works of art and these ideas about aesthetics function in OUR society, today. Because of course they do! Every idea about art, society, history, and culture are built upon the ideas that came before.
Almost every Art Historian who has come across my blog has gasped with a knee-jerk reaction of “You can’t do that!!!” This is sometimes followed by the kind of post above, and is sometimes followed by a message like, “Wow, I never thought of it that way”.
No one can force you to think about it any way you don’t want to. But, guess what? I’m not wrong for doing so, nor are the other students, teachers, professors, or scholars who are doing so. It’s a different take on familiar topics and familiar objects. You don’t have to like it, but here it stubbornly remains, existing without your approval.
So this is really aggravating because I actually really like this blog — I don’t follow it directly but I’ve reblogged it before and tend to agree intensely. I know what historiography is, and I’m also 100% down with people talking about the dialectic between the past and present and how art interacts with the modern world.
That said: You could actually make a pretty good argument that the white-washed walls of Reformed churches are a hell of a lot more POC-friendly than Catholic churches that were/are full of frescoes and sculptures of white saints, some of whom (like the apostles, Mary, JESUS) were “whitewashed” (scare quotes for the figurative racist action because we’re also talking about literal white-washing) and some of whom (like Santiago Matamoros in Spain) who are depicted as actively crushing POCs.
P.S. most Art Historians do not focus on technique and symbolism anymore actually