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The Relativity of Kitsch

An essay inspired by the Exhibition Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity

Alexios Panagiotis Fidetzis Spring 2013 Brooklyn, New York


In the essay called Avant Garde and Kitsch written in 1930, Clement Greenberg introduces the term "Kitsch" to the art world. Mostly arguing about cinema, Greenberg defines Kitsch as a reflex. It is a response to high culture as a result of the demand of lower class citizens of the beginning of the 20th century for a form of entertainment that would be suitable for the level of education and intellect. As Greenberg insightfully states, after the industrial revolution, the wave of migration to the cities created a level of education that was never seen before throughout human history. The former peasants were for the first time able to read -even if they were not educated enough in order to be able to appreciate the high forms of art that always developed inside the urban space, and therefore in need of a easily consumable artistic product. The child of this notion is Kitsch. Kitsch would have to be a form of entertainment that would not challenge the viewers intellect, and as a result it ideally numbs the reactions of the public. It is soothing in a way that the consumer would enjoy the product, but will not over think the work. Therefore, as Greenberg implies, Kitsch had to establish an aesthetic that would -in an obvious manner- be different than the one linked to the so-called "High Art". As a result, the aesthetic of commercial and pop culture was formed. When high art would follow the path of classical artwork and would use the forms and shapes that were first established in classical Greece (followed of course by Rome and the Renascence), Kitsch would use the path of bright, captivating, eye-capturing colors. Based on this notion, and inspired by the exhibition "Gods in Color" curated by Vinzenz

Brinkman and Raimund Wuensche, this essay will explore the formation of global aesthetic values as a result of a historical misconception, and a technological misfortune of the civilizations that became the starting point of western culture as we know it today.

The Exhibition

For almost a decade (2003-2012) the exhibition "Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity" traveled around the world in numerous locations ( Munich, the Vatican, Athens, Cambridge and Los Angeles amongst others). The idea was to introduce to the biggest audience possible the aforementioned misconception about the visual appearance of the creations of classical antiquity. The exhibits of the show were sculptural reconstructions of Greek and Roman sculptures painted according to the indications provided by the lasting scientific investigations of archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann. Using ultraviolet and raking light, Brickmann revealed faded color patterns, painted on the original sculptures by the ancient artists. As he states though, in order to form this exhibition, there was no examination in conjunction with natural science in order to determine the exact hue of the colors used. Considering this fact we can view the works of the exhibitions not just as barren results of an archaeological research, but as artistic proposals inspired by both the scientific evidence and former documentation of polychrome statuary. Even if there is no denying that these exhibits are of artistic nature, the conceptual apprehension of the works do not belong to the artists that actually created the sculptural reconstructions. Skillful sculptors such as Olaf Herzog and Gabriela Tobin, among many others, were under the masterful

guidance of Brinkmann and Wuensche, the same way that contemporary artists conduct their crowded by assistants studios. The two archaeologists had a clear vision about the way that those reconstructions should look. Clear elements as long as shape is concerned, were found through the UV experiments, and the decision about the coloration were based on previous attempts of reconstruction (starting at the early 19th century), archaeological discoveries with obvious traces of pigment, and, partially on testimonies of ancient writers and poets such as Euripides : Helen: My life and fortunes are a monstrosity, . partly because of my beauty, If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect, . the way you would wipe color off a statue.

And the results of their decisions were nothing less than impressive. In the eye of the contemporary viewer, the appearance of the Greek statues are inextricably linked to the aesthetic value of the plain white marble. Therefore, this exhibition was a bold statement towards challenging this misconception. Misconception that has shaped the visual and artistic values of our world. In the exact words of Vinzenz Brinkmann : "Sculptors in modern times have taken significant inspiration from ancient art. Due to the unawareness of ancient polychromy, they introduced something new, which must be considered a world premier: the uncolored sculpture. So it is still the white marble works of Michelangelo and Canova that determine the way the educated European looks of sculpture." It is important to note here that this is not just an assumption on behalf of Brinkmann. Also in the writings of the time such as the ones of Alberti, we see that the decision as to use plain white

marble to create statues, was one off the many loans that the artists of the time would take(or think they were) from antiquity, on their crusade towards a classical ideal. With such a background, it is easy to understand how it is hard for the contemporary viewer to imagine the ancient marble figures as they would look if the pigments that the artists were using, proved more affective against the inexorability of time.

The Peplos Kore

One of the most interesting creations exhibited in the show is the double reproduction of the "Peplos Kore" (image 1). This statue, now shown in the Acropolis Museum of Athens, is an impressive column-like marble statue of a young girl. It was always assumed that it belongs to a group of statues donated to the Athenian Acropolis temple of Athena, as a memorial to the participation of Athenian girls to the cult of the virginal Goddess, protector of the city. Some inconsistencies concerning the formation of the girls posture, all pointed out by the American archaeologist Ridgway challenged this assumption. In a paper published in 1977, she implies that instead of a young girl, the statue is one of a Goddess, most likely Artemis, the sister of Apollo and protector of nature and hunting. This particular work of the archaic period (ca. 650-490 BC) has impressive surviving traces of complicating coloring that made of course its reproduction intriguing. But the lack of evidence, or, more well put, the controversial evidence about the identity of the female figure led to the decision of a double reproduction. In both cases, the traces of decoration of the garment with flower and animal designs demands on behalf of the reproduction a result that is completely uncomfortable to the viewer. The natural pigments used for the coloring were chosen in order to correspond as accurately as possible to the hues used by the ancient Greeks. The minerals used for the recreation of the pigments(azure for blue, malachite

for green, ocher for yellow etc.) produced extremely vivid results that shock our idea about the look of classical antiquity in general. The version of the girl (Image 2) was one of a calming beauty, wearing a yellow garment decorated with extensive imagery of fauna and flora. A light skin tone was used to compliment both the features of the young woman, and also to establish her human nature. For the second version though (Image 3), the approach was of a whole different kind. The natural color of the beautiful locks of hair and the skin were replaced by extremely vivid red and white. The dilated pupils-also red- created the vision of a Goddess, someone to create fear, respect and awe. German sculptor Christoph Bergmann reconstructed a version of the missing left hand, so the figure would be able to hold a bow, sign of the huntress Artemis. It is also important to note that the decorations of the garment, were also a result of a great red and white contrast, an approach that transformed the design from decorations, to symbols. The common ground in both approaches of the reconstruction, is a characteristic that we find in the whole spectrum of "Gods in Color". The bright colors that in a way interfere with the perfect balance of the ancient art works leads the modern spectator to an unexpected realisation. The aesthetic result that the sculptures presumably created in their original form is extremely familiar to what we perceive today as the aesthetics of Kitsch. The pure delicacy of the white marble has been replaced by hues that remind us the bad taste of commercial culture. But, returning to the way that Greenberg defined Kitsch, we should point out that this term is not an aesthetic one. it was formed to define the phenomenon of the "form of art" that was supposed to apply to the ones of lesser education and artistic intellect. And in order for that to be achieved, it had to stand against what was considered at the time to be the highest form of art and taste. It is a common ground that this "high form of taste" is the one that holds on to the balance and finesse that was first introduced to the western public by the exhibition and discoveries of the great works of antiquity. These values were used all over the western world, from the Renaissance (as

F. Haskell states in Taste and the Antique: [...]an essential element of modernity, as the 16th century Italians conceived it, lay in the worship of antiquity) to the works of abstraction in the 20 century, and as a result, the formation of aesthetic values of our time. The classical works though, were not chosen as inspiration by these brilliant men throughout the ages for their visual appeal. They were chosen for the eternal conceptual values they represented. What "looks" classical was defined by the art of the Greeks, ergo, however these "representatives of ideas" looked like, they would be used to establish the intellect of the ones using them. This argument does not suggest the "bad taste" would not have appeared. That was a necessary result of the industrial revolution. What we can certainly say though, is that what we today think of as bad taste, could be totally different visually. Kitsch aesthetics were formed to juxtapose the high taste, so commercial culture, and therefore artist such as Lichtestein would have been using a different kind of pallet. If the Greeks and the Romans had better knowledge on the subject of permanent pigment and coloration, the cities we live in would have been different. Most major European palaces were designed in a Neoclassical manner, a movement that was formed purely out of the misconception of the whiteness of antiquity. And of course, after Europe, the Americas followed. The idea of using the prestige of the antique in order to establish authority, led to the creation numerous state and government Neoclassical buildings in the newly formed United States. Most blatant examples would be the New York Wall str Stock market, and the White House in Washington DC. I firmly believe that, as Vinzenz Brinkman and Raimund Wuensche showed us in their inspired exhibition, if only the ancient pigments were more resistant to wear, the official residence and principal workplace of the President of the United States, would not look like, or called as the way it does today.


Image 1: Peplos Kore, about 520 BC. Acropolis Musem, Athens

Image 2: Color Reconstruction, version A (1992-2003) Glyptothek, Munich

Image 3: Color Reconstruction, version B (2005) Glyptothek, Munich

Brinkmann, Vinzenz, and Raimond Wuensche. Gods in Color. Nubich: Stiftung Archaeologie, n.d. Print.

Haskell, Francis Haskell, and Nicholas Penny. Taste and the Antique. New Heaven And London: Yale University Press, 1981. Print.

Greenberg, Clement. Art and Culture: Critical Essays. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. Print.

Gibson, Eric. Why Dictators Love Kitsch. New York: Wall Street Journal, 2009. Web. 1 Apr. 2013. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204908604574336383324209824.html#mod=articleout set-box>.