Legion of Honor to Host Gods in Color

Jul 11, 2017

Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World
Legion of Honor \ October 28, 2017 – January 7, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO (July 11, 2017)—The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) will host Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World, an exhibition that will present ancient sculpture to Bay Area audiences as never before: in vibrant color. The exhibition will reintroduce ‘polychromy’ – the painting of sculpture to dazzling and powerful effect. Defying the idea of the stark white marble of antiquity, the installation is the result of over 30 years of groundbreaking research in pigmentation of ancient sculpture by international scientists and archaeologists. On view at the Legion of Honor will be nearly 40 reproductions of well-known Greek and Roman artworks painted in brightly colored authentic pigments, uniquely juxtaposed with 30 statues and carved reliefs from ancient Egypt, the Near East, Greece, and Rome from FAMSF’s own holdings, supplemented with magnificent loans from Californian and European collections.

“Our visitors who imagine the classical world as stark and white will be shocked and startled to see antique sculpture in such bright and vivid colors,” says Max Hollein, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Gods in Color explains how ancient art and architecture is incomplete without color. White or monochrome sculpture would have been as strange to the ancients as the color reproductions in this exhibition might seem to us.”

When the idea of classicism took hold during the Renaissance, artists like Michelangelo and other masters hailed form and composition, instead of color, as the most prominent and venerable features of ancient sculpture. Over time, knowledge of color in ancient sculpture became all but forgotten and any evidence of polychromy was ignored. But even today, after millennia of burial and exposure to the elements, faint traces of color pigments on ancient sculptures can sometimes be detected with the naked eye. Additionally, advances in technology and research have allowed for an understanding of the evolution and extent of ancient polychromy. Techniques such as ultraviolet fluorescence photography and the examination of ancient pigments via ultra-violet-visible (UV-VIS) absorption spectroscopy have allowed an international team of archaeologists and scholars to create astonishing color reproductions.

“This exhibition reveals the power of color to enliven art. It is a meeting of the oldest objects in our collection, some over four millennia old, with the latest, state-of-the-art technology,” explains Dr. Renée Dreyfus, curator in charge of ancient art and interpretation for the Fine Arts Museums. “Through cutting-edge scientific investigation, ancient sculpture is brought back to its surprising splendor. This is a truly unique way to showcase FAMSF’s antiquity collection.”

This exhibition will not only challenge the widely accepted ideal of achromatic ancient sculpture, it will also address how this misconception has influenced the history of sculpture. Works from ancient Greece and Rome will also be joined by sculptures from Egypt and the Near East to reveal a fuller range of polychromy from across the ancient Mediterranean world.

Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World is the result of decades of research by Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann together with a group of archaeologists and natural scientists. Vinzenz Brinkmann is the original curator of the traveling Gods in Color exhibition and head of antiquities at the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection in Frankfurt where he worked with Hollein during Hollein’s ten-year tenure as director of the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection. The exhibition has traveled to some of the leading museums in the world, including the Vatican Museums, Rome; National Archaeological Museum, Athens; Pergamonmuseum, Berlin; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; and most recently to the Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City. In San Francisco, it will be presented in its most recent version based on new research and reproductions.

“Today, a viewer sees classical European art in museums, but in antiquity these sculptures were placed in temples, public squares and necropolises where color was critical for understanding or ‘reading’ these sculptures,” says Vinzenz Brinkmann. “We have been researching these phenomena for 35 years and have found a tremendous amount of traces of original colors. Our reproductions have created a very lively public debate worldwide.”

The exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection, Frankfurt. The curator of the exhibition is Dr. Renée Dreyfus, Curator in Charge of Ancient Art and Interpretation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Brinkmann for Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection. The exhibition will be on view from October 28, 2017 – January 7, 2018.

In Detail
Renaissance artists who emulated rediscovered antiquities established white marble sculpture as the ideal artform. Examples from the Museums’ collection by Benvenuto Cellini, Antonio Canova, and Aristide Maillol will reveal how white marble and monochrome metals in classical art and architecture continued to be greatly admired into the Renaissance and neoclassical period. In the 18th century, ancient Greek sculpture was regarded as the ultimate expression of what the influential German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann called “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.”

The idealization of classical art continued into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Greek and Roman sculpture were considered essential to museum collections. When real antiquities were not available, plaster casts were created and became highly valued copies that fascinated visitors and served as cornerstones of the curricula for the teaching of art, architecture, and the history of art. Casts of antique sculptures given to the de Young by the Greek government after the close of both the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 will also be on view and confirm the prevalence of these reproductions.

The earliest antiquities in the exhibition are Cycladic figures in FAMSF’s collections, which date back to the third millennium BC. When first discovered in the early 20th century, these highly stylized marble statuettes, by then pristine and gleaming, were a source of inspiration for artists such as Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, and Hans Arp, who found the streamlined forms emotionally stirring. By using raking light and other techniques on the Cycladic figures, details such as shallow reliefs, raised lines, and paint ghosts have been revealed, which indicate where blue paint was originally used for eyes and hair.

The next period represented in the exhibition will be the art of Archaic Greece (600–480 BC), when marble and limestone were the main materials used for sculpture and architecture. The carefully reproduced examples of temple architecture and funerary monuments will reveal how the ancient Greeks richly embellished their sculptures with colorful painting, gilding, silvering, and inlay. A number of statues from the Athenian Acropolis are represented through colorfully painted casts—including two interpretations of the “Peplos Kore” (ca. 520 BC).

The riot of color will continue with reproductions of ancient works including a full-scale reproduction of a portion of the west pediment of the Temple of Aphaia (ca. 480 BC) in its original polychromy from the Greek island of Aegina. The architectural elements and sculpture will be joined by amazing reproductions of the bronze warriors from Riace (ca. 460 BC), two life-size bronze male nudes. Although the originals were found underwater, chemical analyses have been able to identify numerous preserved elements of bronze polychromy: lips, eyelashes, and nipples of pure red copper, teeth of silver, and eyes of a variety of colored stones.

The strikingly beautiful “Alexander Sarcophagus” (ca. 320 BC), discovered in 1887 with much of its polychromy still intact, reveals the bright colors used in the Hellenistic Period. The color reproduction, which was painted with the pigments found on the original, will offer a surprising illustration of the use of color on marble relief sculpture.

The survey will then turn to Rome and portraiture by artists who also used a wide range of pigments and surface applications to embellish their marble sculptures. Numerous traces of color were found on an original marble portrait of Caligula from the early Roman Imperial Period (AD 37–41), in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek Copenhagen, a reproduction of which will be on display. The emperor’s face was carefully painted with flesh tones applied in multiple layers, creating an authentic, lifelike image.

The sculptures, both ancient and reproduced, will be complemented by early-19th century watercolors of Greek landscapes by English antiquarian Edward Dodwell and Italian artist Simone Pomardi. These breathtaking images, selected from the vast archive of the Packard Humanities Institute, bring to life classical monuments, some of which still retained their original color when these depictions were created. Quotes from Dodwell describe his travels to Greece in 1800 and 1805 when he observed traces of color on these ancient structures.

Also included will be a collection of Egyptian antiquities illustrating a range of painted colors, which are still visible on the sculptures, and a magnificent Egypto-Roman painted linen burial shroud. The exhibition also examines the art of the Near East, highlighted by antiquities from FAMSF’s collection, including an Assyrian wall relief from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II in Nimrud (883–859 BC) and an Achaemenid Persian relief from Persepolis (ca. 490–470 BC). Both were originally painted in bright colors.

The exhibition will conclude with a description of the sources of pigments used and how they were applied. Most of these pigments were of mineral origin, such as red and yellow ocher, bright red cinnabar, azurite, and malachite, but also synthetic such as Egyptian blue, a material made from a mixture of silica, lime, copper, and alkali. White pigment was derived from lead or lime, and black from carbonized bone or other materials. The scientific investigations that uncovered the ancients’ love of color will also be explored.

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Visiting \ Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco. Open 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m. Tuesdays–Sundays. Open select holidays; closed most Mondays.

For adults, tickets are $25. Dual exhibition tickets, which also grant access to KLIMT & RODIN: An Artistic Encounter, are $35. Discounts for students, youth and seniors are available. Members and children five and under receive free admission. More information regarding tickets can be found at legionofhonor.org.

Exhibition Catalogue
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully-illustrated catalogue, co-edited by Dr. Renée Dreyfus, curator in charge of ancient art and interpretation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and Prof. Dr. Vinzenz Brinkmann, head of antiquities at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung. It will be available for purchase in the Museum Store and online.

Exhibition Organization
This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Liebieghaus Sculpture Collection, Frankfurt. Presenting Sponsor: Barbro and Bernard Osher; Diane B. Wilsey. Curator’s Circle: Packard Humanities Institute, and Lisa Sardegna and David A. Carrillo. Additional support is provided by Bernard and Jane von Bothmer in honor of Dr. Dietrich von Bothmer, and Elizabeth D. Moyer, Ph.D. and Michael C. Powanda, Ph.D.

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco oversee the de Young, located in Golden Gate Park, and the Legion of Honor, in Lincoln Park. It is the largest public arts institution in San Francisco, and one of the most visited arts institutions in the United States.

The Legion of Honor was inspired by the French pavilion at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and, like that structure, was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur, in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. Its holdings span 4,000 years and include European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; and the largest collection of works on paper in the American West.

Media Contacts
Francisco Rosas, Public Relations Coordinator \ frosas@famsf.org \ 415.750.8906

Miriam Newcomer, Director of Public Relations \ mnewcomer@famsf.org \ 415.750.3554