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The Ancients and Mona Lisa

When you pace through the Louvre’s galleries of Greek and Roman art, chances are you will be alone. There are usually four or five well-dressed young couples from Japan, walking hand in hand elegantly through the halls, and then there is you, with sturdy walking shoes on your feet and a speedy camera in your hand. Most tourist bypass these galleries at the Louvre, and rush to see the Mona Lisa in the Louvre’s largest room, the Salle des États. In the Salle, there is always a crowd of tourists six feet deep and ten feet wide, contorting their necks and maneuvering their iPhones to get the perfect picture of the Mona Lisa with a selfie of yourself in front of it. It is festive, it is joyous, it is a zoo. I’ve taken a selfie with the Mona Lisa myself.

I prefer to steer away from the crowd, and walk alone among the statues and bronzes of ancient Greece and Rome in any museum. These galleries are never crowded. They are airy, peaceful, ghostly. Each sculpture seems to be telling part of a story, but not the whole truth. The armor of the athletes are chalky. The curls of the hair on the bronzes are beautiful, but with no patina. The dresses of the Greek goddess are stark white.

It is almost hard to imagine that all Greek statutes and many Roman bronzes were painted and decorated. Their sculptures would not appear familiar to us today. Shortly after the pieces were carved they were painted either completely or in part. The statues were also outfitted with a range of accessories that would have made them resemble figures in a modern wax museum. Hair and eyelashes were fashioned out of metal. Eyes were inset with glass, ivory or colored stones. Female figures were outfitted with earrings and necklaces. Athletes would have been shown wearing the victor’s wreath while warriors would be equipped with spears, shields and swords. Horses would have worn bridles and reins.

When the Louvre restored its Nike of Samothrace (Goddess of Victory) in 2013, they found traces of blue paint on the fringe of the drapery and the wings, confirming that this sculpture was meant to be seen painted.

In their day, these sculptures were in temples, monuments and gardens, possibly next to a market or other urban settings. They were gathering places for the common people, where they could do their shopping, and admire their version of comic book heroes. Their mythology was vibrant and alive, and they wanted to see it in sculptures. They enjoyed to see giant renditions of Zeus and Athena, muscular copies of their athletes and maidens, imaginative renditions of girls turning into cows (Europa) or laurels (Daphne). And they wanted to see them painted and decorated.

Walking alone in any gallery of ancient sculptures, I enjoy the beauty of the sculptures. The artisans that made these statues were masters of their art. But I wish I could see them as the ancients saw them, alive and vibrant. Most museums and art history textbooks contain a predominantly neon white display of skin tone when it comes to classical statues. This has an impact on the way we view the antique world. We think of them as sterile, as dormant, as not relevant to us.

Every culture has its own stories and characters. The ancient Greeks and Romans called their stories myths and their characters included gods, monsters and heroes. These myths were so popular that hundreds of years later, in the Middle Ages, people continued to tell them and show them in art. In my collages dedicated to antiquity, I have purposely used an abundance of color and modern imagery in order to revitalize the ancients. We think of them as the past, settled in the dust of time, and turned bone white. I want to think of them as alive, contemporary, and as colorful today as they were in their day. I want the sculptures of Greece and Rome to be as popular as the Mona Lisa.

(c) 2021 Ernesto Beckford

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