Beauty and the Beast

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The beautiful museum Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek is located in the very centre of Copenhagen and this autumn it has put on a fascinating exhibition Transformations: Classical Sculpture in Colour. The objective of the show is to turn our notion of white  marble being the colour of antiquity upside down, and to show us that Greek and Roman sculptures were in fact often very colourful.

Upon entering the exhibition we are presented with a reconstruction of the Loutraki Lion (570-560 BC), a limestone lion guarding the entrance to the exhibition. But beside this familiar looking antique sculpture is the same shape but this one is almost fluorescent yellow with a big blue mane and a silly grin or smirk. This version, a reconstruction in synthetic marble, looks almost like something out of a child’s colouring book, with its blue-tipped tail and funny little red dots for whiskers. But going back to the original, the traces of blue on the mane and red and yellow suddenly becomes very apparent. Traces that are normally easily overlooked.

With this recumbent lion, the exhibition manages to make us question our sense of aesthetics. There is no doubt in my mind, that the bare limestone version by far is more pleasing to me, and that the coloured looks almost absurd, and definitely silly. But if this sculpture was created to be a Technicolor version, then surely I should not find that it is looking out of place and generally just slightly wrong. Surely, the non-coloured version should be the odd one out.

This is a good starting point for the exhibition – it has already managed to make me question the foundation of generally accepted aesthetics through the presentation of the two versions of the same thing. However this might be the high point of the entire show. From here on, too many problems become very apparent.

The first room is a lovely introduction to the premises of why so much research goes into trying to establish the colours of antiquity. In a simple and clear manner, there are introductions of paintings and pottery from the time, showing examples of artists colouring sculptures. There are the obvious traces of colour on sculptures that were not cleaned off throughout the Renaissance, which apparently was the norm – to whitewash ancient relics and sculptures to maintain the idea of an idealised monochromatic world of perfect proportions.

After this, the layout and the curating start becoming rather muddled. It is very difficult to make out the sequence and themes of each individual room. And the overall introductory text is not very helpful. But amongst what seems messy, there are several extremely interesting pieces, one being a presentation of  a “Kore” (maiden statue) in three different coloured versions. Although traces of blue have been found on her dress, and red on her hair, the presented versions are obviously very different interpretations, each giving her a different expression. This theme is best illustrated by the Portrait of Caligula, a marble head from 37-41 AD, and the three reconstructions on show. Again, giving us three very different interpretations on how it could have or might have looked. One is coloured with an emphasis on shading, giving it a very life-like expression. The four versions of this same head almost look like they are portraying four different people, and thus illustrating the power of colour.

As mentioned, the entire presentation and exhibits are difficult to understand, and I am unsure if this is due to the difficulties in accurately presenting very technical methods mixed with information from different periods and styles from ancient Greece and Rome, and not least because, in my opinion, the presentations of old and new sculptures, and the link between them is not emphasised enough. Or maybe the exhibition is simply trying to tell us too much. The result is a profound confusion resulting in me going back and forth; believing that I had overlooked a vital clue in understanding the exhibited items. However, more often than usual, I did not find this hidden clue.

Having said that, I do like the questions this exhibition ignites in the spectator – questions about our sense of beauty, the different colouring techniques and the changing appearance of a colour dependent on the base material (surely the Technicolor effect is due to reconstructions made in plaster or synthetic marble rather than the real thing?).

In connection with the exhibition, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek has released a large publication on the topic, with a range of essays from one on research history, another  entitle On the Rendering of Human Skin in Ancient Marble Sculptures and Colour and Luxury. All of which make very interesting reading on the topic and are disseminating it to a wide audience.

As the name of the museum might give away, the owner of the Carlsberg brewery founded it in 1897, when he donated his personal art collection to the Danish public and built a museum to house it. And what better place to house this show than in the home of the largest collection of arts from antiquity in Scandinavia. The building itself is worth a visit, not least because of the beautiful wing that opened in 1996 and was designed by Henning Larsen and a great example of how a new building can be designed respect the existing heritage of a pre-existing one, another example being the much newer Neues Museum in Berlin, by Chipperfield.

by Runa Mathiesen

Transformations – Classical Sculpture in Colour is on until December 7

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek
Dantes Plads 7, 1556 København V

Tel: (+45) 33 41 81 41

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