The Greek Gods and Polychromy: The Gods Weren’t White

The Greek Gods weren’t white!  We just think they were.  “The Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World,” recently at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, was a revelation.  Using minute traces of residual colors, historical material from past centuries that documented colored temples and statues, and all the resources of modern science, we now can be sure that temples of the gods in ancient Greece may have resembled a set on Black Panther more than a mausoleum.

“Chromophobia” is the fear of color.  It may be wrong to apply it to a to a whole society, rather than an individual,  but I think that we live in an era of mass chromophobia.  Modernism in architecture and decor focuses on neutrals, greys, browns, black and white- with maybe a daring splash of green from a succulent.  But from the earliest times, back to the time of Neanderthal woman, we have sought and ground pigments to produce beautiful, durable colors.

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Vivid pigments from mineral sources.

Seeing this exhibit reminded me of the gorgeous color in ancient Roman murals I saw when I was in Pompeii, and other examples preserved in the Naples Archaeological Museum.  I notice that the stone pigments have a chalky quality with a kind of depth found in modern pastels today.  Yummy!

Girl with Horns, Naples Museum
Rich blues, greens and golds
Naples Pompeii Villa
The famous Pompeii Red. How’s that for dining room decor in your vacation villa?
Naples Archeological Museum Pigment
These ancient Roman pigment sources from the museum in Naples look yummy enough to serve at a decadent banquet.

Look at those pinkish stones!  Pink was a popular color in ancient times.

Gods in color pink goddess
A beautiful pink dress.

I speculate that it was hard to get a sort of true blue-red:  Red ocher tends toward sienna/orange/ brown, and any red mixed with a white opaque binder would turn pink. “Rhodophobia” is the fear of pink;  someone with this affliction would have had a hard time in ancient Greece, because pink tones were everywhere.

A few hundred years ago it was still possible to see traces of color on Greek temples.  Pre-photography, you could go out with your watercolorist and his camera obscura and paint from life.  There were still traces of temple color documented in the watercolors of Greek landscapes and monuments by the English antiquarian Edward Dodwell and the Italian artist Simone Pomardi.

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Greek temple with some color still visible in 1805.

The complex friezes of the ancient world take on a vivid, comic book quality in color.

Gods in color frieze
What we see now vs. the original
Kore 2018
I want this redhead on my side!

The ancients used all the color available to them.  We should too.

Upcoming at Saltworkstudio: “Paleomythic”

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I’m pleased to be a co-curator for PaleoMythic, a show opening on May 4, 2018, in Backstreet Gallery.  I have long loved ancient art and found inspiration in it.  I have joined forces with master printmaker Caren Catterall and three other fine artists to explore our creation of modern myths from ancient sources.  I feel like I’ve been waiting ages to do this show… 65,000 years or so!  I hope that images recalling the sacred darkness of the cave can dispel some of the darkness rising in our collective souls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Phases of Creativity

Worktable with 3 “Drafts” for Larger Paintings, Saltworkstudio

Where am I now?  What’s next?

I’ve been incubating this Dionysian series for a while. I have three 2 foot by 4 foot canvases waiting for paint to develop these themes, colors, and forms.  The starts shown above are meant to act as “thumbnails’ for the next phase of larger paintings on canvas.

I have the best luck with my finished pieces when I am purposely experimental, uncontrolled, and unfinished in my draft paintings. I’m groping in my own darkness when I paint.  I don’t want the whole process to happen even before I hit the canvas.  I don’t want  to pre-paint it in my head, my notebook, or anywhere else.

I found a useful new metaphor for thinking about any creative project, whether it’s painting or cleaning out the junk room. These ideas are from The Path of the Everyday Hero,  a book about mythic themes played out in life.  The six phases of creativity are preparation, frustration, incubation, strategizing, illumination, and verification (or manifestation).

Dignified, precise language allows us to reframe creative pauses or lapses. It’s interesting that frustration comes immediately after preparation, right at the start.  Frustration is the failure stage, the belly of the whale, the so-called “block”. What now?

My friend Karina Nishi Marcus is very clear on the idea that “block” should be eliminated from the artist’s vocabulary.  She says creativity is more related to nature metaphors, like “low tide” for the ocean, or “fallow” for the land.  It is a necessary part of the creative process.

“Noble Bull”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

Frustration stops us from action, and makes us incubate our ideas, like an egg.  It’s on the back burner, in the nest, warming, passive on the surface but active underneath, mysterious, the seed under the ground.  To incubate properly we also need to strategize, to try things that might nourish or warm the invisible idea.   Some might work, some not.  But the passive time is needed, yin to the yang of action. Paintings can stay successfully in this stage for a long time, even years.

“The Great Ones”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

The painter or artist may have to go back and forth in the frustration–incubation–strategy realm for a while, then illumination, the “aha moment” strikes, and elevates the venture to a different level, perhaps to completion.  The creative round, like the phases of the moon, will start again with a new idea.

“We Have Purposely Kept It”, acrylic combined media, Suzanne Edminster

These paintings are not done, but after some months of incubating, I am strategizing.  The notebook helps keep me on track.  When you find your way through an art dilemna, the solution often seems absurdly simple.  Still, it took time to get there.  The cycle may play out in one painting, or in series spanning decades.

The Dionysian metaphor is one of unbounded spring growth and ceremonial theatre, among other things.  Perhaps I should drink a glass of wine to Dionysios, and return to the paintings.    A flash of lightning,  a sprouting vine, or a Greek chorus might illumine the way to the next act of painting.

Mythic notes:  The Dionysian mystery cults tried to loosen the bonds between the worlds through sacred intoxication, theatre, dance and ritual.  The Pompeii Murals, with their glowing Pompeii red, were thought to have depicted aspects of this.

Pompeii Murals, probably showing Dionysian cult ritual

Pompeii Winter Day with Toy Cameras


Pompeii, December. We stepped off the train from Naples into the first rain of the season, Vesuvius wreathed in fog. The ancient wagon ruts filled with water, but we could still use the stepping stones in place for two thousand years. It’s a large city, a grid of named streets, fast food counters, offices, fountains, floors, stores, a harbor, rich and poor homes, bread ovens, baths. Interrupted business is everywhere evident… those businesslike Romans! Wild dogs slept sadly on the cold stones. We bargained for a 10-euro umbrella for two. The rain worked to our advantage; we had a lot of the site to ourselves. It was a day for ghosts and images brought in on rainclouds and reflected in puddles. Pompeii!

Myth Notes:  Pompeii is  a web of Greco-Roman mythology, with a dash of Isis from newly-conquered Egypt.  It was wine country (Dionysius/Baccus/Silenus) and was on the coast (Posiedon/Neptune).  I think the Romans would have been appalled at how we got so much information on Roman culture from Pompeii; it was a hick commercial village far from the centers of power in Herculaneum and Rome.

Studio notes:  I’ve done Holga, Lomo, and pinhole toy photography for many years.  We chose to take the Lomo Fisheye and Lomo Sprocket Rocket with us, as they used 35mm film rather than the more awkward– but more fun– 120 mm film.  At airports now , many security guys have never even seen film.  I hand-carried it in a ziploc bag without film containers.  It always caused consternation and dismay in the security lines.  What the heck is film?

Lomo Sprocket Rocket Camera
Lomo Fisheye Camera

Happy Couples and Girls with Horns: Archaic Art Friends from Rome and Naples

This is my image of true love: looking into the light of eternity, together.

The Etruscan “Happy Couple in the Villa Giula museum  in Rome used to be painted and draped with fabric.  They had wine glasses and perfume bottles in hand and were reclining and eating at the same time– wonderful.  She had her earrings and jewelry on originally too.  This is the most famous of the tomb sculptures and is still incredibly moving for its feeling of affection and love. Not to mention the great “dos”, his and hers.

Then, the Romans invaded, and everyone started thinking about money, real estate, commerce.  Look at the new portrait of the married couple, Roman-style! Brood, worry, and scheme… not much trust there. And no more damn reclining in married portraits.

When not buying something or conquering someone,  in their spare time the Romans loved their soft and ahem, harder , images of sex.  This is a sweet one from the Secret Cabinet of Pompeii, a collection of erotic/ironic art  in the Naples Archeological Museum.  We did get in, though the guidebooks report this is often dicey.  It was deserted.  I think there’s a basic misunderstanding about what was erotic and what was common during the height of the Roman Empire.  Phallic-shaped signposts, lucky charms, and house decoration: common and boring.  Wall-painting series of  “menus” showing different sexual activities you could choose in the brothels, especially if you’re illiterate: interesting, erotic, naughty, not boring.  She’s light and he’s dark, showing the power of the guy, or something; this painting convention continued through the Renaissance and later in erotic scenarios. It’s Pan and his goat, but she seems happy.

Girls with Horns!  What can I say?  You can check my Mythic notes at the bottom for more ideas.  Here’s an Egyptian version of girls with horns.  They seem to have water buffalo horns, an image seen still in Naples because of their wonderful water-buffalo mozzarella cheese.  You buy it from the deli, little balls swimming in a salty sea, and carry it home in a tied plastic bag like goldfish from the fair.  Mozarrella alone is a “secondi piatti”– main dish– in Naples.   It’s grilled a bit, served with bread, and that’s it.

And now some Pompeiian paintings of girls with horns.  The “encaustic” they used included wax, but the paint actually used soap (lye-based) as the “caustic” medium binding the pigment  to bond with the walls.  These are not frescoes– the plaster was dry.  These are wet, slippery paint layers.  They then used the hot wax to seal the walls as a varnish on top, which they could buff to a high shine.  The first girl definitely has horns; the second may be more of a crescent moon, perhaps Diana.

Horns or crescent moon?  What say you?

For the last happy couple, Scott and I, the morning after our arrival back, at the IHOP at 6AM.  We are not reclining and eating, like the Etruscan couple, but you see a soft upholstered booth, coffee, empty plates and cups, books, and happiness.  Good enough.

Mythic notes: I saw a lot of images of  Europa on the Zeus-Bull.  She was taken to swim on Zeus-Bull’s back through the Straits of Bosphorus– Bosphorus means ox-crossing– dividing Europe from Asia/Turkey–in other words, the Straits of Istanbul.  Europa and Io merge women with bull or cow, and then put them in water– a river or sea.  They might be a holdover from a more ancient cow -goddess, or metaphors for mass migrations and settlement of cattle people, but I just thought that the girls with horns were cool.  The Romans idealized the Nile as a source of fertility;  Roman matrons would buy vials of Nile water at the local Isis-temple  and douse themselves with it to increase conception.

Book notes:  The Social Animal by David Brooks was a great buy.  It’s trending sociological research, carried by his  made-up, somewhat borg-like characters named  Harold and Erica.  The characters provide a framework for reporting findings from everywhere.  Intriguing.  Many are saying that the creative/artistic mind is the big money earner in our new world. Well, let’s hope.  He lets Erica do art after she retires, and there are a few pages on the latest social research on music, painting, and other arts.   Recommended for a rousing non-fiction read and a juicy idea source.

Studio Notes:   I’ve done large paintings of both Europa and Io as abstractions.

My Marble Buddies: Hanging with Sculpture in Rome and Naples

Three weeks in Italy! I felt like I was dipping my toe into a river of souls.  It was a time of borderlines and thresholds: old year to new,  marble to flesh, ancient streets filled with modern people, and classical beauty in the faces of people arguing, eating, buying stuff, driving Smartcars. The ancients seemed to live,  and the Christmas crowds of elegant Italians seemed temporary flickers haunting the alleys.  Meet some of my marble buds. 

The Capitoline Walls… this guy is great.  Is he a David figure?  To us he looked like he had 400 years of saying “Hey, Sailor” to his credit.   Cocky.  Just sayin’…

 

An achingly blue winter day, and I couldn’t tear myself away from the brilliant negative shapes against the stone. Youth and horse… stunning  contained force, and a tremendous face.  I like the entire Capitoline hill, and this museum piazza was designed by The Big Mike, Michaelangelo.

Capitoline Hill, sunset from the museum cafe terrace.  Murmurations of starlings, kinetic.  The whole Hill was formerly a nest of  state oracles and seers.  They liked the elevation so they could interpret flights of birds.  Nowadays the seagulls have invaded.   Oddly, they fly at night in the city, shrieks and white forms soaring in the darkness, a bit ghoulish.

 Classical sculptures are virtually all knockoffs—copied from ancient Greek sources, now lost— or propaganda for the ruler du jour.  Some mighty bodies were made with removable heads so the next Caesar could just screw his own on.  The head of Constantine below is 5 feet high, so the whole sculpture, with pedestal and base, might have been 50 to 70 feet or more.   Statues of this mass can so easily verge on  Facist architechture.  But they impress.  Think of Lady Liberty!

What has that flawed eye perceived in its time? Think, too, of paint and decoration, fabrics and jewels originally draped around the sculpture.  The marble we see now is more a bone structure.  Ripped from their original colored and decorated context, they become evocative collage pieces.  But some still shine. I felt that it wouldn’t take long to develop a real relationship with them.  The more we like them, the more they come alive, like any so-called “object”, I suppose.  I’ll miss hanging with them.

Next: Happy Couples and Horned Gals: More Archaic Art Friends from Rome and Naples