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The true color of ancient sculpture

Alan Flurry

CBS Sunday Morning ventured into the hallowed halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to wade into the subjects of beauty, marble sculpture and changing aesthetics. Along the way they consulted Mark Abbe, associate professor of art in the Lamar Dodd School of Art, for an illuminating segment on the experience of light, whiteness and color:

"The statue topples, is covered by rubble, you have soil accumulation. When the statues were then found [during] the Renaissance, they would come out from the ground looking pretty dirty."

Teichner asked, "Did people actively scrub them to get the paint off once they started cleaning them?"

"Most certainly so."

"If sculptors like Michelangelo were inspired by the Greeks, by the Romans, why didn't they, too, paint their sculptures?"

"Because they never saw the paint on that sculpture," Leona replied. 

They saw form, not color. Those scrubbed sculptures they mistakenly took for white inspired their belief that white equals beauty, purity – a culturally-loaded concept that underpins Western art to this day.

"It's at the core of how we think about sculpture and its aesthetics," said University of Georgia art history professor Mark Abbe. "It's at the core of how we think about the body. It's even at the core, I think to some degree, of how we think of ourselves."

Teichner asked, "Do you think that the notion of Western art, what we understand Western art to be, will change as more people are aware that its cornerstone wasn't as they thought it was?"

"Yes, I can't imagine it not changing," Abbe replied. 

He uses technology to see what was missed – or conveniently overlooked – since the Renaissance. "It's a binocular microscope to look at really up close on the surface," he said. "Where you and I might look at this and just see a white marble sculpture, you can actually make out traces of pigment."

Great scholarship, informed expertise, and a willingness to share it widely. #thebestpeople #UGAFranklin #theDodd 

Image: An artist painting a statue, as depicted on this ancient Greek vase. via CBS News

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