Thursday, December 21, 2017

museum day

The way to get around to visiting a limited-run exhibit at a museum an hour's drive from home is to treat it like a performance you have tickets to: pick a day in advance, schedule it, and just go.

That's how we got to Gods in Color at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco today.

I've been curious about the discovery that those ancient Greek statues we're used to thinking of as pristine white marble, with blank staring eyes, were originally painted in bright colors, with pupils painted in the eyes, ever since I saw the startling giant painted reproduction statue of Athena in the replica Parthenon in Nashville, "The Athens of the South," some 15 years ago.

This exhibit was all about that. It featured a large number of very recently-made reproduction statues - small pieces, no giant Athenas - mostly cast in plaster or imitation marble, and painted in egg tempera, which is what the ancient Greeks would have used, using mineral or vegetable dyes in bright flat basic and primary colors, mostly yellow, red, brown, and blue. (The yellow lion with a blue mane and red whiskers was a sight. It's no. 5 in the slide show at the bottom of the exhibit web page.)

Some of the replicas were placed next to the originals, for comparison, or to show the faint traces of paint still visible on some of them. (It was the custom in the 19th century to take newly-discovered ancient sculpture and scrub it down. Philistines.) A technical display described the various techniques used to deduce the original colors when they're no longer visible: bombarding the statues with everything from infrared and ultraviolet to x-rays and scanning electron microscopes.

I found the coloring charming and arresting, particularly the lozenge pattern on some of the clothing, as visible in the figure on the exhibit front page linked to above. It reminded me more of medieval motley than anything else I'd known.

But it also raises another point, as do the pupils in the eyes: the painters went beyond expressing the shape of the sculpture, and added shapes of their own. And with none of them was this more dramatic than with the Cycladic figures, simplified human statues with an eerie blank appearance, even spookier than Rapa Nui moai, as the faces are entirely flat and featureless except for the elongated noses.

The caption said that these mysterious figures inspired modern artists like Henry Moore, and from the blank featureless look I can believe it. Well, Moore was as misled as all the neoclassical designers who created worshipful imitations of high Classical Greek work in white marble, because, according to the exhibit, the Cycladic figures originally had cheerful-looking line-drawing faces painted on them. I can't find an image of this online, but the replica with this on it was outstandingly goofy. It looked rather as if a kindergarten teacher had drawn the face for the edification of her class.

This earns a prize as a wild and strange art exhibit.

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