Whitewashing Antiquity

Whitewashing Antiquity

Marble head of Dionysos wearing ivy wreath, eyes hollowed for inlay
Marble head of Dionysos” (300-100 BC), Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, The British Museum

If not for choices made by Johann Joachim Winckelmann and other eighteenth century “scholars,” it is possible that the legacies of racism and colonialism would not be visibly present in modern perceptions of marble antiquity.1 Despite the fact that ancient Greeks would most certainly have found white marble sculptures to be ugly and bare, scholars have chosen to perpetuate the idea that white marble was/is the pinnacle of Grecian beauty in art. These eighteenth-century scholars would have been aware of the colorful history of the statuary, not only because of the bits of paint left on some pieces, but also because of textual evidence by well-known ancient writers such as Euripides. In his fifth century tragedy, Helen, Helen herself at one point exclaims, “my life and fortunes are a monstrosity, partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty. If I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect the way you would wipe color off a statue.”2 Still, not all translations refer to color or even a statue. Even so, there is no debate that color was intentionally removed from the narrative of ancient sculpture, and not arbitrarily. There are two ways in which color has been removed from history: One is that the idea that paint and pigment would have covered all marble and bronze statues in the ancient world is disregarded (the literal way). The second is how the skin color of the ancient Greeks has been falsely claimed to signify ancestral connection to modern white Europeans, and the existence of darker skinned people in antiquity has been ignored (the theoretical way). These erasures happen in some ways simultaneously and in some ways as a result of each other.  The question then stands, Who benefits from the erasure of color in antiquity? And if a group of people had an agenda to rewrite history through the erasure of color in antiquity, then who was harmed by this rewriting of history and how? Lastly, what can be done to retrieve the lost history and undo the damage of losing this history?

In the nineteenth century, the study of the classics was born, “infused with contemporary ideologies.”3 In Germany, the discipline gained traction mostly as a way to connect their history with the ancient Greeks. During this time, classical scholars seeking to link ancient Greece and present-day Europe looked to “language clusters or language ‘families’” as evidence in the absence of physical remains and/or bloodlines. This set the precedent for harmful ways of thinking about history and race through the twentieth century.4 In the context of the wider western world today, some scholars theorize that the desire to claim association to the ancient Greeks and therefore to their art(ifacts) comes from attempts to “[appropriate] ancient knowledge and culture, which had historically been sited (sic) as the root of western democracy and civilization.”5

Modern ideas about race mostly came to fruition within the specific context of European exploration.6  Europeans, encountering unfamiliar peoples and terrains then attempted to explain the differences they saw between themselves and other populations:

Often premised on alleged empirical observation, these racial structures of thought allowed European writers to account for a range of traits they perceived as vastly different from their own, including the degree to which other groups seemed more or less ‘civilized’. Such theories were soon readily harnessed to claims of European superiority, casting Europeans as racially superior (therefore ‘naturally’ superior) and providing an important rationalization in the rise of European colonialism and the African slave trade.7

This gave way for the use of science in the nineteenth century to validate claims of European superiority by accepting five theories about race: 1) human beings can be divided by skin color, 2) groups can be ranked in a fixed hierarchy, 3) the inside and outside matched, 4) characteristics (of each group) are inherited, and 5) the groups were unchanging/unchangeable. 8 Scholarly sources made it seem as though by nature and across time, color had always been the antithesis of whiteness and that whiteness had always been the ultimate. This was applicable to both the literal and theoretical function of whitewashing history.

With the acceptance of history as monochrome, whiteness became the assumption and the standard to strive for, leaving no room for any sort of positive or even neutral perspective on color. In discussions of marble antiquity, critics and historians of the nineteenth and twentieth century often repeated the word “pure” referring the subject of a piece and its almost divine “spirit” and beauty. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) wrote of the late sculptor, Thomas Crawford, saying that it was unfortunate that he had not gotten the chance to see his ideas in marble, gleaming with “so pure and celestial a light” compared to plaster. Hawthorne said that the difference was like “flesh and spirit.”9 Hawthorne’s views reflect a very popular opinion on marble based on the false narrative of bare marble in the ancient world, which formed the ideas of neo-classicism and retrospective ideas about classicism. In addition, it represents the division between white people/white historians and people of color around the world. If Hawthorne (and others) believed that white marble sculptures exclusively representing Greco-Roman figures were the ultimate, most esteemed pieces of art in history, and also that the ancient Greeks were the white ancestors of present white-Europeans, then there is no room left to believe that color is anything but a deviation from beauty, truth, divinity, morality, and all value. Still, pure white marble was not just a signifier of skin, it was a symbolic reference to moral (and sexual) purity in the nineteenth century. Charmaine Nelson writes in The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America,

In its use of color and perspectival systems that transformed flat canvas into three-dimensional space, was seen as untruthful in opposition to the supposed truth that could be represented in marble’s tangible and voluminous whiteness. The elimination of color, except for whiteness, became a method of purging sensualism from the marble and assuring a morally sound object.10

Again this is applicable to both the theoretical erasure of racial color and the literal erasure of color painting in history, making it so it was more difficult to see beauty and value in the application of color, for art historians and casual viewers alike. This, needless to say, excludes many groups of people (anyone who is not white) from existence in a history that is held up as a standard for all things good and virtuous, and reiterates that people who are not white are in opposition to goodness and virtuousness.

Some modern scholars such as David Batchelor reflect on the history of chromophobia concluding that

Color is made out to be the property of some ‘foreign’ body– usually the feminine, the oriental, the primitive, the infantile, the vulgar, the queer of the pathological  . . . Color is relegated to the realm of the superficial . . . In one, Color is regarded as alien and therefore dangerous; in the other, it is  perceived merely as a secondary quality of experience . . .  [Essentially,] Color is dangerous, or it is trivial, or it is both.11

One might build off of this and conclude that the rejection of color is the most dangerous thing, as in addition to limiting future growth as an inclusive and empathetic society, it also disregards and the ancient Greeks as people whose stories are worth being told and examined truthfully. Of course, the west has a track record of revising and erasing peoples’ histories, and often with much more violent result, ie. Indigenous people in the United States; but that is a tangential subject.

Refusal of color is refusal of knowledge, which is detrimental to people’s understanding of art and turns away from further exploration and the ability to ask and potentially even answer more question about the ancient world. One example of information lost with color is in the Odyssey. In his essay, “Black Achilles,” Tim Whitmarsh discusses how Athena enhances  Odysseus’ appearance by blackening his skin and turning his facial hair blue. Other times, she makes his hair “wooly, similar in color to the hyacinth flower.” 12 Whitmarsh explains that scholars usually interpret the word, kuaneai (blue), to mean “dark” (some even chose to interpret this as “tanned”), rather than blue. But he also presents the possibility that maybe the ancient Greeks actually envisioned his hair turning blue. Whitmarsh’s suggestion brings up two ideas: If a famous, respected classic such as the Odyssey verifies to at least some extent that there was a capacity for blackness in antiquity, why is this not widely accepted? And secondly, if Odysseus was subject to beautification multiple times from a goddess, then there is in fact some sort of inhuman level of beauty at least in the realm of the arts and literature that was achievable for ancient Greeks through the application of color.  Importantly, this supernatural beauty (as evidenced by the translation of blue hair) is not motivated by real life’s limitations. This is all to say, that the choice not to see color in antiquity limits the potential to analyze color in a productive scholarly way. Maybe it is possible to draw further meaning from a person in ancient Greece who acquires blue hair. Maybe black skin meant the literal color black, calling to mind Greek vases of the time. If scholars never invest the time and energy to explore this, out of fear that it will upset modern social constructs built around race and racism, the endless possibilities of the past and future become zero.

If race were widely recognized as a social construct, and modern people understood and believed that racism is not based on any sort of fundamental truth of difference: if this then were reflected in the way contemporary people looked at the ancient art that is arguably more respected and admired than most other artistic traditions, it would be easier to denormalize racism in daily life and common belief, and therefore deteriorate its systemic functions. The myth of white marble in antiquity and the fact that said antiquity is looked to as the highest in truth, beauty, and value leads modern art viewers to consciously and subconsciously make the same associations in real life.

Today’s museums know that people do not read information about the pieces, and even if they did, there is not a mention of color in most if not all of marble sculpture descriptions. Museum curators could choose to change the world’s view of marble sculpture, and shape the next generation of art observers, if only they would acknowledge the use of color on marble antiquity. This could be through speculation about color palettes on the information about pieces, as well as by presenting a few small renderings of the piece in color next to the original. This would force viewers to see the and accept color as a fundamental and valuable piece of history which should no longer be ignored.

  1. Charmaine Nelson, The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 59.
  2. Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung.
  3. Denise Eileen McCoskey, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012, 5.
  4. Denise Eileen (McCoskey, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, 5.
  5. Charmaine (Nelson, The Color of Stone, 58.
  6. Denise Eileen McCoskey, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, 4.
  7. Denise Elieen McCoskey, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, 4.
  8. Denise Eileen McCoskey, Race: Antiquity and Its Legacy, 4.
  9. Nathaniel Hawthorne quoted in Charmaine Nelson, The Color of Stone, 58.
  10. Charmaine Nelson, The Color of Stone, 60.
  11. David Batchelor quoted in Charmaine Nelson, The Color of Stone, 63.
  12. Tim Whitmarsh, “When Homer Envisioned Achilles, Did He See a Black Man?” Aeon, Aeon Essays, aeon.co/essays/when-homer-envisioned-achilles-did-he-see-a-black-man.
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