Putting Some Color in the Emperor’s Cheeks

Visitors to Washington, DC always remark on the grand public buildings around the National Mall, which look like they were taken from Athens or Rome.  Monumental, temple-like structures house museums and offices, their exteriors often decorated with imposing statuary representing ancient Greek and Roman gods or allegorical virtues, in gleaming white marble.  The problem is, these buildings and their accompanying statuary are historically incorrect, as a new exhibition at Copenhagen’s Glyptotek art museum demonstrates.

Employing a combination of research, technology, and artistic skill, “Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour” displays 120 works of sculpture from the ancient world, all of which were once painted and still retain some degree of their original color, even if only on a microscopic level.  These are accompanied by modern recreations showing what they may have looked like when they were new. In mounting the exhibition, scientists and conservators used electron microscopes, infrared, lasers, and other equipment for a close-up examination of the surface of these works.  They were then able to extrapolate the appearance of these sculptures, before they lost their surface decoration.

To our contemporary eyes, the end result is somewhat shocking, as you can see in this short clip.  A 1st century A.D. marble head of the Roman Emperor Caligula is given the color treatment, and the effect is startling.  Instead of a distant, cold figure, we get a more realistic sense of this particularly cruel and insane member of the imperial family.  At the same time however, the colored surface paradoxically flattens the effect, so that the painted Caligula looks more like a giant porcelain doll than the unpainted Caligula, where we have to use more of our imagination to get a picture of the man.

It should not surprise us that sculptures like these were originally brightly painted, when we look at the buildings in which they once stood.  If you recall my article from last week on the just-completed restoration of the Domus Augusti, the home of Caesar Augustus on the Palatine Hill in Rome, rather than a stark, stone environment, the walls of the imperial villa were covered with lively frescoes of landscapes and flowers in rich colors.  The colorful statuary featured in this new exhibition in Copenhagen would have looked perfectly at home in just such a space.

It’s interesting to imagine what Washington would have looked like if the buildings and sculptures which make up the monumental core of the city were decorated with something close to historic authenticity.  Keep in mind however that in trying to evoke the world of Ancient Greece and Rome here in the capital of their new republic, the Founding Fathers and those who came after them were not concerned with completely recreating the past, as if they were about to shoot a movie or stage a play.  Just as the Houses of Parliament and other government buildings in Westminster are a pastiche of British medieval architecture and design, looking back to the foundation of parliamentary rule, so too many of our equivalent structures here in America are adaptation rather than complete recreations.

No doubt a time traveler from Rome or Athens in the 1st century A.D., visiting Washington today, would ask why everything has been left unfinished.  They would comment on the lack of colorful decoration which they would have expected in official buildings and public monuments of their own day.  Yet while it’s certainly fascinating to see in this exhibition just how colorful the ancient world truly was, personally I would prefer that we leave the Lincoln Memorial exactly the way that it is.

Head of the Roman Emperor Caligula (1st Century A.D.) Museum of Archaeology, Munich

Composite of original and restored marble head of the Roman Emperor Caligula (1st Century A.D.)
Museum of Archaeology, Munich

 

The Dark Knight in Mexico: A Batman Birthday Exhibition

To mark the 75th Anniversary of the first appearance of Batman in “Detective Comics” back in 1939, Warner Brothers and MUMEDI, the Design Museum of Mexico, co-sponsored an exhibition inviting artists to submit their own, customized versions of the Dark Knight’s signature bat-eared cowl and cape.  The resulting show opened recently at MUMEDI, and showcases a wealth of talent and creativity.  Using the same maquette, each artist focused on different aspects of Batman’s personality, backstory, and so forth, creating some truly unique designs.

You can see photos and a video featuring many of the exhibition entries by following this link.  There are a number of terrific ones, but my favorite has to be this absolutely amazing, intricate version by artist Christian Pacheco (Kimbal) which you can see here.  If you love archaeology and art history as much as I do, you’ll immediately appreciate why I was drawn to this piece.

The artist used one of the ancient Maya gods, Camazotz, as his inspiration, and appropriately so.  For in Mayan mythology Camazotz was, in fact, a “Bat-Man” – i.e., an anthropomorphic bat, who ruled the night.  Unlike Batman from the comics, Camazotz was a monster, and liked to rip people’s heads off, but then again Bruce Wayne when he’s angry is apt to do the same thing, so perhaps there’s a further analogy to be made.

More importantly, the look of the thing is just brilliant.  If you have ever seen works of pre-Columbian sculpture, you’ll recognize that the techniques and principles Kimbal used in his work are referencing ancient works which, while originally brightly painted, have faded somewhat over time and from being buried for centuries.  The laying on of thicker, almost extruded layers of clay to build up the design on the armor gives an even greater, weightier presence to the superhero.  Kimbal has clearly done his homework, and looked at a lot of the archaeology and art history of his country to get this just right.

Even if you knew nothing about Batman from the comic books, and saw this piece displayed at a museum with a substantial collection of early sculpture from the Americas, such as Dumbarton Oaks here in D.C., I daresay you would not find it the least out of place.  The fact that the artist made the connection between the artistic past and the pop culture present, is exactly the sort of bridge-building I like to see. It opens up the viewer to exploring new ideas and areas of learning, which they might never have been aware of otherwise.

The exhibition runs from now until October 8th at MUMEDI in Mexico City.

"Batman" by Kimbal (2014)

“Batman” by Kimbal (2014)

The Not-So-Humble Vegetable

Now that the Northern Hemisphere is entering into Autumn, it’s that time of year when food is particularly on our minds.  Neighbors who cannot possibly eat all of the tomatoes and peppers they’ve grown are desperately looking to hand off their excess crops, rather than let them go to waste.  Fruits like peaches need preserving and canning, while apple picking season began just yesterday in many counties around DC.

The bounty of this time of year has inspired Western artists for millennia.  The cornucopias of the gods, tied to various ancient myths, are to be found in many examples of Ancient Greek and Roman statuary. Fruits and vegetables figure prominently in the work of Old Master painters such as Carlo Crivelli and the strange portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.  In the 17th century, the Dutch and Spanish artists of the Golden Age often produced still life paintings featuring beautifully rendered produce.

Even alongside all of these examples however, it is hard to imagine topping the work of artist Patrick Laroche.  As a classically-trained sculptor, M. Laroche produces many things, from original pieces or restorations for the French national museums and palaces, to enlargements and reductions of existing sculptures, to exploring his own ideas in his personal work, which has a sensuous, Brancusi-like feel to it.  However the reason you need to know him in the context of this post is his current fascination, which lies in creating giant, colorful sculptures of vegetables, some of which have now been installed on exhibit at the Sofitel St. James in London.

Being somewhat of a magpie by nature, I was immediately drawn to the polished gleam of these works.  They are cast in bronze, stainless steel, or resin, and then coated in a high-gloss finish, giving them a colored shine, sometimes reflecting the vegetable’s actual color, sometimes not.  This makes the pieces stand out even more than they already would, just based on their gigantic size alone.

While historically, they are the sort of object that one could imagine a Renaissance prince commissioning for festivities surrounding a wedding or coronation, at the same time they are something a child with a great imagination would create, if he only knew how.  I think this childlike joy in creating the fantastic, in particular, is what makes them so charming: it prevents the pieces from becoming too totemic.  Moreover, M. Laroche’s motivation is celebration, as he told The Daily Telegraph, because he is passionate about gastronomy.  This seems a great way to celebrate the French national love of good food.

Even those of us who do not have the good fortune to be able to eat French food all the time can still admire, even smile or laugh, at work like this.  We can realize that we are very lucky indeed, in the Western world, to have so much good food to choose from in this season of plenty, particularly when so many around the world do not enjoy that luxury.  And while the realization of that fact should not put us off jarring our homemade marinara sauce or savoring the crispness of this year’s pears, perhaps it will also put us in mind of the fact that in sharing that bounty, we can truly demonstrate our gratitude for it.  M. Laroche’s sculptures are a wonderful reminder of how truly fortunate we are.

Patrick LaRoche

Sculptor Patrick Laroche in his Paris studio