That Painted Greek Maiden at the Met: Just Whose Vision Is She?

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Roko Rumora, a young historian, could probably walk blindfolded through the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Greek and Roman galleries without toppling statuary or sending the Athenian vases airborne.

Rumora had memorized a path through these famed halls of antiquity a decade ago as a college intern, but when he returned this month, there were unfamiliar faces around every corner — boldly colored marble women, bronze men, funerary steles and a smiling sphinx that seemed garish compared with the grand marble masterpieces that have impressed the public for more than a century.

“My reaction was one of startling confrontation,” Rumora said, pausing at the foot of a painted statue of a maiden named “Phrasikleia,” with large brown eyes, a crown of lotus buds and an auburn dress embossed with flowers. She was one of some 17 reconstructions — made circa 2005-2019 — in a new exhibition, “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color,” which evokes how the Greeks and Romans painted their sculptures, a practice called polychromy.

Rumora, now a doctoral candidate in ancient history at the University of Chicago, found the presences of these colorful copies among the original artifacts — many with traces of paint — jarring. “Whether they fill a gap depends on whether you see the original statues as lacking in the first place,” he said.

For the Met curators behind “Chroma,” such quandaries do not give pause but show conviction. The exhibition, which the museum called “groundbreaking,” is the vision of ancient sculpture — 2700 B.C. to the third century A.D. — pioneered by Vinzenz Brinkmann, 63, and his wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, 58, German archaeologists who have devoted their careers to reconstructing the lost colors of antiquity through scientific inquiry. Their project also dovetails with recent scholarly efforts to undo the misunderstanding that classical sculpture was typically made of unpainted white marble, a myth of whiteness that some far-right organizations have embraced as symbols of white supremacy, while more moderate conservative groups assert that they are protecting the cultural heritage of Western civilization.

“The Brinkmann reconstructions are so exciting and interesting because they push the envelope,” said Seán Hemingway, the Met’s curator of Greek and Roman art, who organized “Chroma” with the associate curator Sarah Lepinski. “Antiquity has a role in expanding our understanding of contemporary society.”

However, some historians worry that the Met Museum has elevated the increasingly ubiquitous Brinkmann replicas to an iconic status that is becoming the default representation of ancient polychromy, when the couple’s research is just one among dozens of competing theories. The debate now encompasses more than a disagreement about pigments and scientific method; some academics see the reconstructions as a larger discussion on who gets to define the past.

“All reconstructions engage in uncertainty,” said Sarah E. Bond, a historian at the University of Iowa who has written extensively on the polychrome debate. “Why not allow people a choice of reconstruction to show them that uncertainty is part of the historical method?”

Uncertainty is a scary word in academia. Some scholars are concerned that admitting their limitations could alienate the public and compromise the authority of their institutions. But complete confidence is unavailable to polychrome experts who extrapolate data from only a few surviving examples of painted artifacts. Human interpretation is required to fill knowledge gaps and build the replicas.

Vinzenz Brinkmann would be the first to admit that reconstructions must be revisited, as he and his wife did in 2019 — nearly a decade after completing their painted replica of the sixth-century B.C. “Phrasikleia Kore” — when they went back and added the gilding and gemstones that now adorn the replica at the Met.

“What we do is create proposals, and we ask the audiences to read between the lines,” Brinkmann said, adding that more than 100 researchers have been involved in all of the couple’s project over the decades. “Everything is regarded as a result of process.”

That process has evolved since the Brinkmanns began their reconstructions during the 1980s as students at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, one of Europe’s leading research institutions, when the researchers would identify traces of pigments by studying their “shadows,” or microscopic surface variations that indicated paint. Technological advances have made their methodology more precise in recent years; the Brinkmanns say they collect upward of 500 measurements from a single sculpture using such tools as portable X-ray fluorescence and ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy.

A lifetime of persistence has afforded the Brinkmann replicas a celebrity status that can eclipse the genuine artifacts; their reconstructions have been shown as definitive representations of the past in Wikipedia articles and in big-budget video games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, which takes place in ancient Greece. You can attribute much of that popularity to the Brinkmanns’ traveling exhibition, “Gods in Color,” which has been presented at venues like the Vatican Museums, the Harvard Art Museums and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England since 2003.

Awareness of polychromy has been cyclical ever since the Mediterranean empires fell hundreds of years ago. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, arguably the most influential art historian since the Renaissance’s own Giorgio Vasari, popularized the notion of whiteness in ancient marble sculptures in 1764 through two volumes on the topic. As the historian Nell Irvin Painter wrote in her 2010 book, “The History of White People,” a new rationale came to dominate the discourse: “Color in sculpture came to mean barbarism, for they assumed that the lofty ancient Greeks were too sophisticated to color their art.”

The Met Museum’s own research on ancient polychromy flourished under its third director, Edward Robinson, who witnessed archaeologists unearthing sculptures from the Athenian Acropolis bearing traces of paint and wrote an influential paper on the subject in 1892. Consequently, the institution started acquiring more artifacts with the remains of pigmentation.

One purchase was an ancient marble sphinx that the Brinkmanns have recolorized for the exhibition using 3-D printing technology — a result of collaboration with four departments at the Met, including science research and objects conservation.

The reimagined sphinx has gilded feathers on its red and blue wings; a golden choker decorates its neck. That much was evident in the research; however, the Brinkmanns needed to guess on the creature’s finial crown, which archaeologists never recovered. They went with a gold wire curling toward the right, a pattern seen in illustrations in Greek pottery.

According to Mark Abbe, an art historian at the University of Georgia, the return of ancient color in public discourse has coincided with the spread of globalization, increased awareness of racism, and the use of color photography within academic textbooks that were once exclusively printed in black-and-white.

It also helped that an early supporter of the Brinkmanns now leads the Met Museum.

In 2007, Max Hollein, then in charge of the Liebieghaus sculpture museum in Frankfurt, hired Vinzenz Brinkmann to lead the museum’s departments of antiquities and Asia. The reconstructions went on view a year later. In 2017, Hollein helped facilitate an exhibition of “Gods in Color” at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, which he oversaw as director and chief executive of the Fine Arts Museums, and in 2019, not long after he became the Met’s director, he eased the way for the reconstructions to travel to New York.

Speaking by phone, Hollein praised the Brinkmanns’ calculated risk-taking, calling them pioneers who continually revise their replicas when more information becomes available. “The first and second generations of these reconstructions were not on the level of refinement that you see right now,” he said, adding that for about 80 percent of visitors, news that the Greeks painted their statues will come as “a total revelation to people, and I think that has enormous educational value.”

Even among nit-picking academics, the Brinkmann replicas are respected. “For our generation, the Brinkmanns have created a whole series of objects we can relate to,” said Milette Gaifman, a Yale University professor specializing in ancient art.

However, of 10 scholars interviewed for this article, more than half said that the Brinkmanns have taken a heavy-handed approach to painting, choosing excessively bright hues that leave their reconstructions looking gaudy. One criticism is that the pair ignored elements of lighting and fading that artists of the era would have anticipated in their work.

“Think about the Greek sun,” Gaifman said “Think about the posters of Santorini. Now imagine those blue roofs in New England. It wouldn’t be the same because the natural light is different.”

Art reviews of the exhibition have been mixed. The Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott wrote that while the reconstructions “lack the supposed authenticity of genuinely ancient things,” they were “unsettling — in all the right ways. It asks us to fundamentally reimagine our sense of the ancient world.”

Historians and antiquities experts pointed out that the Brinkmanns chose to forego marble in their reconstructions, in favor of plaster and crystalline plastic. Marble tends to glow from behind the painted surface while other materials tend to absorb pigmentation. The couple claims that its alternatives are cost-effective and have more impact on viewers.

Vinzenz Brinkmann said that he conducted an experiment in 2008 in which he presented some critics — “guardians of good taste,” he called them — with two recreations the couple made of the Paramythion stele (380 B.C. -370 B.C.): one was high-quality thassian marble, the other made of synthetic marble. When asked to choose the best replica, “all of them failed and opted for the synthetic marble,” he said.

“Everybody was saying the marble one looked like Styrofoam,” Brinkmann added.

The Brinkmanns had used a drill on the quality marble, rather than calling in artisans with chisels to hand-sculpt it. Inevitably, they changed its character.

To a certain degree history is irreplicable. “The best experimental reconstructions evoke a strong sense of the past and the worst create something that never was,” said Abbe, the art historian. “I would say the Brinkmann reconstructions are quite suggestive of the once defining, colorful and material-based aesthetics of Greek and Roman sculpture.”

As Hollein, the Met’s director, observed, “It is an iterative process to get closer and closer to the truth.” He added, “you will never reach the absolute truth.”

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