Venus incognito

The Colour of Sculpture 1840-1910 - Understanding Greek Sculpture
April 4, 1997

In 1986 the exhibition "La Sculpture Francaise au XIXe Siecle" at the Grand Palais in Paris set the scene for a decade of sculpture studies with a pioneering and scholarly catalogue. International loan exhibitions of 19th century sculpture are exceptional events and ten years on "The Colour of Sculpture 1840-1910", curated by Andreas Bluhm of the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam where the exhibition was staged before moving to the Henry Moore Centre for the Study of Sculpture in Leeds, has the potential to be equally influential.

Any exhibition that includes works as diverse as John Gibson's neoclassical icon "The Tinted Venus" and Desire-Maurice Ferrary's "Leda and the Swan" full of fin-de-si cle eroticism, or Felicie de Fauveau's precious gothic revival "St Louis" and Georges Lacombe's "Mary Magdalene" of 1896, must have something interesting to say. This was a highly important exhibition which provided British audiences with a fantastic opportunity to see many key works, as well as many wonderfully obscure creations. The exhibits were well chosen and grouped in clearly defined sections, starting with "The Classical Heritage", "The Gothic and Renaissance Revivals", "The Art of the Salon", "The Art of Patina", "Impressionism", and concluding with "Fin-de-si cle sculpture". These divisions did not restrict the exhibits chronologically, resulting in some provocative juxtapositions, such as Gibson's "Tinted Venus" and Prosper d'Epinay's "The Golden Belt" in the opening section.

The Leeds showing seemed to emphasise this melange, but in respect of the later sections suffered from several key pieces only being shown in Amsterdam. The accompanying catalogue is a lavish production which befits the sumptuousness of the multifarious multicoloured exhibits. It is an essential text for every serious student of the 19th century, as well as a handsomely designed picture book.

The raison d'etre of the exhibition, whether sculpture should be monochrome or coloured, may not at first seem enthralling, but in the postneoclassical development of European sculpture (the exhibition chooses a start date of 1840) this aesthetic hot potato was a perennial polemic. The debate has far-reaching implications on a host of fundamental issues from the constant struggle with the authority of establishment regulations to the effects of industrialisation and the breakdown of the distinctions between sculpture, painting and the applied arts. The breath-taking range of styles covered by the catalogue indicates the importance of the question of colour to 19th-century sculpture.

The catalogue includes six introductory essays which have, for the most part, been judiciously selected. Andreas Bluhm's opening history is a well-modulated and lucid introduction, complemented by Wolfgang Drost's more particular account of the central debate. Philip Ward-Jackson, as eclectic and illuminating as one has come to expect from this author, explores the crucial effects of industrialisation. The dimension of the popular arts centred on the waxworks of Madame Tussaud is discussed by Alison Yarrington. The vital area of Symbolist sculptures, in which some of the most dramatic colouristic experiments are developed, is tackled by Emmanuelle Heran. June Hargove's concluding summary of the evolution of modernism broadens the discussion, achieving a perspective not possible in the exhibits alone. By the same token, however, an opportunity was lost in not including an article on the range of other European examples of polychrome sculpture, notably more Italian and German, but also Spanish, which were poorly represented among the exhibits.

The catalogue succeeds in providing both the informed student and general reader with a clear introduction which cogently explains the essential issues, notably the distinction between natural polychromy (colour made up of materials of different hues, epitomised in Charles-Henri Cordier's ethnographical busts) and artificial polychromy (colour applied with a brush). Two further useful insights into the resistance to colour are its association with both the loss of the individual involvement of the artist leading to the intrusion of the producer, and its identification with products of popular culture.

Above all, the catalogue is a worthy accompaniment to an exhibition that provided a unique opportunity to see some stunning sculptures. It will certainly become a standard text.

The growing body of archaeological evidence of the use of colour on sculpture in ancient Greece which emerged during the early years of the 19th century fuelled the debate around modern sculpture. Its abiding relevance to our perceptions of Greek sculpture are briefly touched upon in Nigel Spivey's new contribution to classical sculpture studies, Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings. This is an immensely readable and enjoyable work. It is a general survey, concentrating on Greek sculpture from about the late 7th century, which manages to bring a sense of fun to the subject without compromising the facts, or the basic argument: that a full understanding of Greek art can only be achieved with a thorough understanding of the beliefs, rituals, technical developments and sociopolitical scene within which the makers, patrons and viewers of Greek sculpture lived.

The anecdote of the early-eighth-century-ad tourist guide flattened by a statue while expounding on the treasures of Constantinople which opens the book is a salutary lesson, but one from which Spivey need fear no danger. His book is a most valuable account from which more focused studies will surely be inspired. Spivey achieves a fine balance between generality and details and never gets bogged down in labouring a point. The author presents the options, proffers a suggested interpretation and is not afraid to leave important questions open. The text is completely unencumbered by footnotes, but there is an essential, and functional section, "Sources and Further Reading", relating to each chapter, and should be carefully noted by all serious students. The chapters are well-crafted and manageable. The book's aims are clearly set out at the start - to restore to Greek sculpture not only its sacred functions, but also to attempt to resurrect its proper historicity. Above all, jargon is, for the most part, avoided and a refreshing informality pervades the book without compromising its scholarly purpose.

It is divided into ten chapters which treat the subject more or less chronologically. Accepted art-historical notions on "The Greek Revolution" from Winckelmann to Gombrich are discussed at the outset and issues of style and democracy, narrative and anthropomorphism are introduced, followed by a chapter on technique. Primed with these issues the main body of the study examines the religious beliefs, the cult of heroes, the importance of historical events and two chapters on artists and the nude. The final two chapters act as the denouement covering the Hellenistic and Roman period.

Understanding Greek Sculpture is an excellent introductory work which succeeds in its primary objective of leaving its reader with a desire to know more. It is a disappointment that the illustrations could not have been more impressive; there are no colour and few full-page images. For a text that succeeds so well in enticing the newcomer, the pictures of, for example, the Riace Bronzes, blatantly fail to inspire.

This book should be sold in every museum with Greek holdings as a reminder to visitors and curators alike that the decontextualisation of objects in the museum limits our full understanding of the meanings inherent in every object, which is one of the book's axioms. Unless museums try to convey something of the original circumstances of production and convictions of those who created Greek sculpture, we shall never understand its true meaning.

Understanding Greek Sculpture goes a significant way in providing this recognition and Spivey's refreshing approach is highly engaging. The account of bottom competitions in relation to Aphrodite Kallipygos is really amusing, as is the suggestion that the Kritian Boy is a type of ancient Greek cover boy.

Alexander Kader is deputy director, 19th and 20th-century sculpture department, Sotheby's.

The Colour of Sculpture 1840-1910

Editor - Andreas Bluhm and Penelope Curtis
ISBN - 90 400 9847 6
Publisher - Reaktion
Price - £45.00
Pages - 2

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