I was excited to learn in Ivy’s recent post about her exhibition “True Colors” that Johann Joaquim Winckelmann was partially responsible for spreading the myth about the whiteness of ancient Greek sculpture. With her exhibition as inspiration, I thought I might provide more details on why Winckelmann espoused this ideal of whiteness, and thus tie her post into my ongoing series of entries on the history of art restoration.
Winckelmann was and continues to be a celebrated figure in the history of art because of his historicist method—most fully developed in “History of Ancient Art” of 1764. In this work, Wincklemann not only provided the first comprehensive account of Greek sculpture but also argued that historical factors such as the climate and political freedom of ancient Greece were fundamental in producing its sculptures. Simply put, this was the first text to argue that works of art were in some way produced by historical circumstances. Given this widely held fact, it is unsurprising that Winckelmann is generally regarded as the father of art history.
However, Winckelmann’s legacy is complicated by the tradition out of which it emerged. Mid-18th century Germany also gave rise to rationalist aesthetics; a philosophical school often exemplified by Alexander Baumgarten’s attempted formulation of a “science of the beautiful.” Winckelmann attended Baumgarten’s lectures on aesthetics and at the very least was inculcated in his system of thought. Thus, even though Winckelmann’s contextualist, historicist writing was in many ways directly at odds with Baumgarten’s universalizing, idealistic notions about beauty, he did not completely escape the dominant intellectual mode of his time.
Thus, as Ivy pointed out, Winckelmann still held idealist notions about art. While he contextualized to some extent, he also famously argued that the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of Greek sculpture made it great; this is perhaps why he preferred marble sculpture to be white. Indeed, a white sculpture is certainly more “simple” and “quiet” than the polychrome ones we know about today. Thus, the great irony of his legacy—and the one that “True Colors” best exemplifies—is that while he is remembered today as the father of art history, the idealist components of his writings also led to the whitewashing and destruction of much of that history. In other words, his writing had two contradictory effects. He simultaneously inspired an historicist approach to art objects—one that eventually led to the professionalization of art history and subsequently the professionalization of art conservation—and he inspired an idealistic myth that the whiteness of Greek marble made it great—which led to the whitewashing and the removal of historical evidence about Greek sculpture.
The paradox of Winkelmann’s legacy is a fascinating instance of how the ideals of art and the facts of art come into conflict. While we all like to think that we are on the side of fact—especially when it comes to art restoration—the slope between fact and ideal is slippery at best. (See my previous post on keeping art looking “good”) But don’t just take my word for it . . . visit “True Colors” and see the facts for yourself.