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Art Review: “The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to Present”

By Clara Polley

March 12, 2008 9:20 p.m.

When thinking about western sculpture, we tend to visualize the timeless white marble and bronze figures from Greece and Rome, separated from reality by their idealized bodies and beauty. The Getty Villa’s newest exhibit “The Color of Life: Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to Present,” however, challenges this common neoclassic, black-and-white view of antiquity and forces visitors to rethink the effect of sculptures when a crucial element is added to the artwork: color.

The exhibit presents an arrangement of polychrome (i.e. multicolored) sculpture, tracing the use of color in Western sculpture over nearly five millennia. (The oldest pieces are from ancient Egypt, the most recent one is from 1995.) Though the exhibit contains few pieces considering its enormous time span ““ 43 objects presented in three galleries ““ almost every single work manages to surprise and perhaps disturb the visitor.

Starting with pieces from antiquity, the first room in the exhibit displays a few ancient sculptures on which tiny pigments of paint have survived. For example, there are scattered paint remains on a sculpture of a man’s head, whose locks used to be bright red and his beard, blue. Painted modern replicas are placed next to the originals for comparison. These replicas represent different possible images of what the original colored sculpture could have looked like. Videos showing the scientific process of this restoration add an accessibility to the exhibit. The effect is startling: By adding bright colors, and sometimes colored eyes made of glass, to a sculpture’s head, the nature of the sculpture changes radically, transforming into a more individualized and realistic figure.

The next two rooms, moving the view forward in time, impressively demonstrate the persistence of polychrome sculpture throughout the centuries (among them are works by Paul Gauguin and El Greco) and the various ways in which color added “life” to sculptures from different eras.

For example, artists often applied color to signify status and rank ““ gold was used on gods, red on portraits of cardinals. Color was also used to show the difference between men and women ““ women were painted in lighter and men in ruddier tones. Two elaborate sculptures by French artist Charles”“Henri”“Joseph Cordier from the 19th century depict women from the French colonies. In order to capture their exotic look, Cordier used many materials, including metal, stone and glass, to create a stark contrast between the women’s dark skin and eyes and their light, colorful clothes.

The inclusion of four replica heads of a 13th-century Virgin Mary, which change gender through the addition of a beard or thicker eyebrows, seems forced. Even though the effect is intriguing, it would have been more aesthetic to see original heads of Virgin Mary transcending gender.

The two most impressive pieces of the whole exhibition, which may please even marble lovers, both shock and fascinate at the same time. One of them is an 18th-century wax model of a nude life-size woman called the “Anatomical Venus,” which shows the multicolored exterior and interior of a female body with an almost uncanny precision.

Finally, the exhibit culminates in the display of Duane Hanson’s 1995 sculpture, an exhausted, life-size American middle-class couple on a bench outside the galleries. The paint and textiles are applied so meticulously to the bronze statue that one can easily mistake it for two real visitors resting.

Because every piece portrays a different facet of polychrome sculpture and is never repetitive, “The Color of Life” succeeds in presenting a strong, edgy and astonishing approach to sculpture and shows that the lines between art and life can be blurred to an almost creepy extent.

– Clara Polley

E-mail Polley at [email protected]

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