Sounding out Idols

This essay was commissioned for Florian Roithmayr’s Aftercast, a Tender Books publication:

Image result for peplos kore cambridge museum of classical anthropology

Peplos Kore at the Museum of Classical Anthropology in Cambridge

In his essay Éloge du maquillage (‘In Praise of Cosmetics’), Charles Baudelaire advocates among other the use of rice-powder designed ‘to rid the complexion of all the blemishes that nature has outrageously strewn there, and to create an abstract unity in the texture and colour of the skin; a unity which, much like that produced by the leotard, instantly assimilates the human being to the statue, that is to say a divine and superior being. For Baudelaire, not only are women justified in their attempts at reforming nature, they are performing a kind of duty by attempting to make their beauty appear supernatural, even divine. Make-up, not unlike fashion, expresses a hankering after an ideal, one which is at odds with nature. On more than one occasion in The Painter of Modern Life (1963), the collection of essays to which his whimsical eulogy of cosmetics belongs, the poet likens women to (empty) idols who, as he puts it, must be adorned in order to be adored.1

The female idol should not hesitate to borrow from art the means to artificially enhance her appearance. Powdering the skin creates a blank canvas of sorts – albeit a three-dimensional one – in preparation for the face-painting proper, using eye-liner and blush. Just as with powder, their effect is calculated to improve upon nature, but they go about it differently. Where the one results in the uniformity and pallor of a death mask, the others bring out and animate the features by means of colour. ‘Red and black represent life, a supernatural and excessive life; this black frame makes the gaze more penetrating and individual, gives the eye a more decisive appearance of a window onto the infinite; the rouge which sets the cheek-bone on fire only increases the brightness of the pupil and adds to the beautiful face of a woman the mysterious passion of a priestess,’2 writes Baudelaire.

These lines from Baudelaire’s essay Éloge du maquillage could have been written about the painted, reconstructed version of the Peplos Kore, one of the standout pieces in the cast collection housed at the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge. What makes it stand out among the more or less white plaster casts displayed all around the purpose-built cast gallery are its brilliant colours: blue, green, burnished gold and, above all, a crimson red applied not only to the eponymous outer garment but also to the tresses, the lips, even the irises of the black-rimmed eyes. The fact that the female figure holds out in her outstretched left hand a fruit resembling a pomegranate, painted that same shade of red veering towards purple, made me leap to the conclusion this must be Persephone, the goddess of the underworld whose symbol it is, when I first saw the polychrome cast.

It turned out not to be the case. Kore may well be Persephone’s maiden name (in ancient Greek kore simply means ‘girl’), it is also the generic term for a type of Archaic Greek sculpture depicting clothed young women – the female counterpart of the widespread kouroi, except that these were naked – and thought to have served as gravestones or votive offerings. The original Peplos Kore, sculpted from fine Parian marble and dating to ca. 530 BC, was excavated near the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis in 1884 – incidentally the year when the Museum of Classical Archaeology was founded. When a second cast of the Peplos Kore joined the collection in 1975, the museum staff supplied the missing bits – adding a headdress here, a fruit there – and painted it to give an impression of what the original marble statue might have looked like, based on traces of pigment found on its surface and sheer speculation. Thus decked out, the new cast took its place beside the old ‘white’ plaster cast – to startling effect.

The ghostly twin of the painted cast, it must be said, completely escaped my notice when I visited the cast collection. The coloured effigy steals the show in a room full of nearly white statues, making its neighbour somehow fade into the background, like a shadow. Besides, the stark contrast between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the colour treatment makes it hard to conceive that the two figures originate from the same source.

Putting the two Kores next to each other turned out to be an inspired decision. Back in 1975, the then museum curator Professor Robin Cook was well ahead of the game. In terms of display, it anticipated the dual presentation adopted for the groundbreaking Gods in Color exhibition, which started life as Bunte Götter – Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur (‘Painted Gods – The Polychromy of Ancient Sculpture’) at the Glyptothek in Munich in 2003, and has toured around Europe and North America ever since. The brainchild of classical archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann, an exponent of ancient polychromy which has been the focus of his research since the 1980s, Gods in Color boldly confronts the bright-coloured reconstructions with the faded originals to impress on the visitors how different the reality of ancient sculpture and architecture would have been from what the bare white marble or bronze statues that people museum galleries lead us to believe.

The Peplos Kore, to whom Brinkmann dedicates an essay in the catalogue accompanying the original show at the Glyptothek,3 comes in alternative colour versions (completely different to the one dreamed up by the staff of the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology), bearing new attributes and ornaments each time, as if to illustrate possible readings of the mystery female figure and her identity. On Brinkmann’s view, rather than a mortal girl making an offering to a deity, the ‘Peplos Kore’ is herself a goddess.

This brings us back to Baudelaire. For the ur-Peplos Kore, now at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, does indeed look kind of homey and youthful, owing perhaps to the warm glow of the Parian marble and the occasional splotch of surviving colour pigment; the spotless plaster cast version, glaringly white, in the Cambridge cast gallery has the ‘abstract unity’ that Baudelaire attributes to a statue; only once the Peplos Kore is made-up and wearing the full regalia of a goddess (Brinkmann argues that the peplos is something of a misnomer, in fact, since the type of dress the figure sports tends to be associated with deities), does her whole mien and expression evince ‘the mysterious passion of a priestess’ the poet speaks of.

White as a swan and with a heart of snow to match, Beauty is likened to a ‘dream carved in stone’ in a sonnet thus entitled of the ‘Spleen and Ideal’ section of Les Fleurs du mal (1857).4 In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche speaks of the god Apollo in connection to sculpture and dream, setting apart ‘the Apollonian art of sculpture’ from the ‘non-plastic, Dionysian art of music’.5 Baudelaire’s allegory of Beauty is thus Apollonian through and through. It harks back to the neoclassical idealized vision of white marble statues that has shaped our own understanding of ancient sculpture and architecture, and is proving hard to shake off.

The alternative, polychromatic view of Graeco-Roman statuary championed by the curators of the travelling show Gods in Color is not exactly new. In Das griechische Musikdrama (‘The Greek Music Drama’), the first of two public lectures Nietzsche gave in 1870 – two years before The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (its full title) was published – the then professor of classical philology at the University of Basel mentions in passing a growing recognition of the true nature of ancient sculpture:

until recently it was considered to be an unconditional axiom of art that all idealistic sculpture had to be uncoloured, and that sculpture in antiquity did not permit the use of colour. Quite slowly, and encountering the resistance of these ultra-Hellenists, it has gradually become possible to accept the polychrome view of ancient sculpture, according to which we should no longer imagine that statues were naked, but clothed in a colourful coating.6

A century and a half later, the resistance he speaks of has not entirely been vanquished. While scholars may have come round to ‘the polychrome view of ancient sculpture’, the wider public of museum-goers still balks at it. With talk of ‘ultra-Hellenists’, Nietzsche no doubt targets purists of the Winckelmannian persuasion. The archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was held responsible for the enduring myth of a white antiquity, until an essay he wrote on the subject of painted Greek sculpture came to light in 2008 and qualified that view.

In the same lecture, arguing that ancient drama was a hybrid artistic form (‘music drama’), Nietzsche goes on to challenge the widely-held ‘aesthetic principle that a union of two or more art forms cannot produce an intensification of aesthetic pleasure, but is rather a barbaric error of taste’. The colourful statues and temples of antiquity represent just such a union of art forms, namely of sculpture and painting. Pliny the Elder reports that Praxiteles, when asked which of his marble statues pleased him most, responded it was those in which the painter Nicias had a hand.7

The Greek sculptor’s oeuvre is represented at the Museum of Classical Archaeology by a fine reproduction of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, also known as Hermes of Praxiteles, which joined the cast collection (then still housed at the Fitzwilliam Museum) soon after the statue dating to the fourth century BC was discovered amid the ruins of the Temple of Hera at Olympia in 1877. The hair of the original life-sized sculpture made – just as the Peplos Kore – from a block of choice Parian marble displayed faint traces of cinnabar used in preparation for gilding.8

Next to the full cast of the upright Hermes cradling in his left arm the infant Dionysus, stands a truncated version of the statue familiar to me from my childhood. A white plaster bust of the god Hermes graced the top of a tall wooden cabinet in my grandparents living room in Nowa Huta, a district of Kraków. I remember running my fingers along its smooth plaster surface, painted and waxed to match the appearance of weathered marble. Salvaged from the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, where my grandfather taught, the cast joined the growing number of unwanted ‘antiques’ that filled the crowded flat to my grandmother’s despair. An architect by training, my grandfather was drafted in for the planning of Nowa Huta, a model social realist town that went up in record time in the aftermath of World War II to accommodate the workers of the nearby steel plant. The heroic effort that went into the building of Nowa Huta is the subject of Andrzej Wajda’s 1976 film Man of Marble, whose tragic Stakhanovite hero Mateusz Birkut is celebrated in the propagandist marble statues made in his likeness before the tide turns against him.

The preface to The Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, written in 1888 and published the following year, is where Nietzsche formulates his method of ‘sounding out idols’, a handy way of putting all values to the test. If you strike an idol with a hammer, it makes a hollow tell-tale sound, such as bloated entrails emit.9 But it is equally the sound of a mould chipped away to reveal the cast or the void inside – quite unlike the noise a block of marble would yield. For her durational work ‘Doing’ (1998/2015), staged at Palazzo delle Papesse – Centro Arte Contemporanea in Siena and more recently at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, sculptor Lara Favaretto originally hired masons to pulverize three blocks of Carrera marble (the kind that Michelangelo’s masterpieces are sculpted from) using hammers and chisels, precisely to extract sound from them. The masons themselves perceived this demolition deed, which necessitated three months of steady work, as a regrettable waste of quality marble. ‘Wasting’ is an integral part of the casting process since, in order to free the cast nested inside, the mould must needs be destroyed. Yet such is the material humility of plaster that no one mourns its sacrifice.

1‘La femme est bien dans son droit, et même elle accomplit une espèce de devoir en s’appliquant à paraître magique et surnaturelle; […] idole elle doit se dorer pour être adorée.’ (Éloge du maquillage)

2The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays by Charles Baudelaire (Phaidon Press), translated by Jonathan Mayne, pp. 31-32.

3Vinzenz Brinkmann, ‘Mädchen oder Göttin? Das Rätsel der “Peploskore” von der Athener Akropolis’, (‘Girl or Goddess? The riddle of the “Peplos Kore” from the Athenian Acropolis’), in Bunte Götter. Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur, Staatliche Antikensammlungen and Glyptothek, Munich, 2003, pp. 53-60.

4‘Je suis belle, ô mortels ! comme un rêve de pierre / […] J’unis un cœur de neige à la blancheur des cygnes’ (‘La Beauté‘, in ‘Spleen et Idéal’, Les Fleurs du mal, lines 1 and 6).

5See Babette Babich, ‘Nietzsche and the Sculptural Sublime: On Becoming the One You Are’,, p.2.

6Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The Greek Music Drama’, translated by Paul Bishop,, p.8.

7Pliny, Natural History, book 35, 133.

8See Mary Beard, ‘Casts and Cast-Offs: The Origins of the Museum of Classical Archaeology’, p.8

9‘Preface’, The Twilight of the Idols, translated by Anthony Ludovici, in The Project Gutenberg eBook, pp. xvii-xviii