Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - April 15, 2011

Ancient art in living color

Cantor Art Center exhibition finds hidden bright hues in Greco-Roman sculpture

by Joann So

At the end of a dimly lit room in Stanford's Cantor Arts Center are two replicas of an ancient maenad sculpture. According to Greek mythology, the maenads were female worshipers of the Greek god Dionysus.

The one on the right is the usual Greco-Roman sculpture, shiny and white. We're used to this kind of unpainted beauty. Understated color brings out the sculptor's mastery of line and sheen, and the presence of a white sculpture can stir up a stately air in any museum.

Her twin stands a few feet away — but instead of being a graceful white, she is bathed in hues of red, yellow and brown.

Contrary to the long-lasting notion, Roman sculptures weren't always white, according to this new exhibition at the Cantor museum.

The 18th-century German art historian Johann Winckelmann pioneered the idea that the ideal Greek sculpture was white, and "cemented the proper taste" for these works, Stanford University student Ivy Nguyen said. When artworks were found, handlers would then clean the work to get rid of the dirt and, oftentimes, whiten the piece.

However, Nguyen and her team have now used modern technology to remedy the long-lost color on the maenad at Stanford. Nguyen, a sophomore studying chemical engineering, found hints of color using contemporary instruments, and tried to re-create the colors that were originally on the marble using period paints, she said. Other images from ancient pottery provided the designs for the maenad's newly colorful draped clothing.

"True Colors," the exhibition up at the Cantor center through Aug. 7, also features a video clip showing the scientific process that Nguyen's team used. In addition, vials of minerals are neatly arranged in a glass case to portray the kind of pigments that were found on the maenad.

The project grew out of Nguyen's sophomore interdisciplinary seminar called "Art, Chemistry and Madness: The Science of Art Materials." It was taught by chemical engineering professor Curtis Frank and his artist wife, Sara Loesch-Frank; and by Susan Roberts-Manganelli, manager of collections, exhibitions and conservation at the Cantor center.

This exhibition's maenad, from the Herodian Dynasty, was uncovered from a Samarian well during a Harvard expedition in the 1930s. "We acquired the piece from Harvard through a trade in 1998," Nguyen said.

The maenad seemed a prime candidate for the Cantor project, as the 18th-century art market's preference for the white couldn't affect this sculpture found in a well two centuries later, Nguyen said. The maenad was left untouched by human hands but accrued natural residues.

Nguyen came to this art project through the sophomore seminar, which Manganelli has worked hard to make an interdisciplinary effort.

In order "to connect with students as much as possible," Manganelli said, she has brought various departments including drama, English and the medical school together to find ways to better conserve art. She also works closely with one to two students per year to teach them basic conservation. "They are the future art collectors and supporters."

Interviewed in the Cantor center's conservation lab, Manganelli said that "curators are keepers of the art," as she pointed out various pieces that needed to be taken care of. She added that she hopes "to see a surge and link arts into science" to further expand the potential of art conservation.

Students from the seminar, including Nguyen, were introduced to this environment. Besides hearing lectures explaining the science of art materials, they were able to experience what happens behind the scenes in a museum. It was here that Nguyen saw the sciences from a curator's perspective.

At the end of the sophomore seminar, students were asked to propose their dream exhibition, in a competition that Nguyen won.

A painted, atypical model of a Greco-Roman marble sculpture was the dream exhibition of a science student who didn't consider herself an artsy individual until this class. "The project changed my outlook a lot."

The nymphish maenad with feline iconography — spotted leopard skin on the shoulders and a cat head tucked underneath the arm — challenges the idea of a stately marble, she added.

Though Nguyen didn't have a particular training in the arts, Manganelli spoke of her strong background in writing (she reports for the Stanford Daily) and her experience in the sciences. This not only helped Nguyen as she was writing and presenting her proposal to the museum board, but it also allowed her to garner support from the sciences and arts.

In the lab, Nguyen worked to find out what colors had originally been painted on the maenad by using XRF (x-ray fluorescence), which points out "minute traces of paint that are impossible to the naked eye," she said. The machine beeps to show elements found on the marble and sends out a specific signal based on the remnants. She also found evidence of different colors by UV-ray testing with a black light.

It was a collaborative and surprising journey. Nguyen had no idea about the identity of the sculpture until John Hermann from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston said so during a phone call. He came to the conclusion that the figure was a maenad because of the cat head that subtly protruded outward from the body, Nguyen said. She also didn't expect there to be gold found on the marble's surface. Two Stanford students, Blake Miller and Nell Van Noppen, painted the maenad based on Nguyen's findings.

Manganelli described Nguyen as "smart, tenacious ... not being fazed by anything." She added, "The knowledge she brings makes me think about other things."

At the Cantor center, Manganelli said, she's seen some visitors speechless when they see the painted version, especially when juxtaposed against the white one. "People don't know what to say — even the ones who talk a lot. They are at a loss for words, trying to understand."

Nguyen brought up a point about the ideas instilled regarding Roman sculpture in particular. "Washington, D.C., is based on the premise that marble is supposed to be white."

When asked if she considers herself more of an artist or scientist, she humbly responded, "I'm more of a scientist, really." And as for artistic hopes, "We'll see where it goes from here."

What: "True Colors: Rediscovering Pigments on Greco-Roman Marble Sculpture," an exhibition

Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford University

When: Through Aug. 7, open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays until 8 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: Call 650-723-4177 or go to http://museum.stanford.org .

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