Ashmolean show is a revelatory riot of colour, says Theresa Thompson

What a shock to the system! To walk into the serene soft blue-and-white space of the Ashmolean’s Cast Gallery and see blazingly bright colours on some of the statues — casts of classical sculptures seen for centuries only as pure white marble: that is, as artworks.

Suddenly, eyes that had merely stared colourlessly, blankly ahead now fix their red-brown or piercing blue gaze on us.

A young girl, a kore from the Acropolis of Athens, who would normally blend demurely into the background, suddenly stands out as a personality proud of her attire as she makes her way to worship Athena. And garments we barely registered before, except in their general form, now become fashion, adding to the story the sculpture is telling.

That is key to this display. If you want your god or emperor to be seen from across the square but you also want a meaning and narrative to be understood, what do you do? You colour the statue. You paint it in whizzy standout colours that define the figure and add meaning.

“It seems that ancient statues were always in colour. Colour adds meaning,” said Dr Milena Melfi, who has worked on this display of over 20 more-or-less full-size colour reconstructions of Greek and Roman sculptures with Professor Bert Smith, curator of the Cast Gallery.

The display, mounted in collaboration with German archaeologists Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, is based on research into ancient poly-chromy begun by Brinkmann in the early 1980s. He was the first to prove scientifically (using techniques such as X-ray analysis, infrared and spectroscopy) that ancient statues were far more colourful than was generally thought. They were not made as artworks; they had meaning.

For centuries classical sculpture has meant white marble. We have taken it as read that the pure white statues we admire from antiquity were always like that. But not so: both Greeks and Romans thought of their gods and rulers in colour and portrayed them that way.

The pure white ideal was Johann Winckelmann’s, and that 18th-century art historian’s view prevailed despite growing evidence to the contrary.

Brinkmann’s vivid reconstructions show how the statues looked to begin with. The casts are painted with authentic pigments that match residual paint traces on the original.

Some reproductions are shown beside uncoloured casts from the Ashmolean collection. Also displayed are costly mineral pigments — green from malachite, blue from azurite, cinnabar red, yellow ochre — and possible binding agents. The highlight is a reconstruction of a section of pediment from the temple of Aphaea, Aegina. Centred on Athena, the scene of fighting between Greeks and Trojans reveals the range of colours used on both architecture and figures.

It’s hard to know what in this marvellous show is the most startling: is it the Persian rider’s snazzy leggings seen at eye level at the entrance, gripping a green-maned horse; or the eerily blue-maned lion; or Caligula, brown-haired, thin-lipped, gaze unwavering? Colour undeniably brings life.

Not to forget bronze. That was not plain either, as we’ll see when a head of one of the Riace warriors joins the show in March. The colouring is based on remains found on the original off the Calabrian coast in 1972: the warrior’s complexion is dark, his skin brownish, tanned, interpreted from a dark patina applied on the original bronze; his eyes are inset stone; his teeth covered in silver foil.

Brinkmann’s exhibition began in Munich in 2003, was recently in Copenhagen, and now Oxford has the display until June.

Gods in Colour: Painted Sculpture in Antiquity
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Until June 14. Free