A marble countertop is an avid Instagrammer's dream. Cover your bathroom in some smooth, semi-matte, preferably Carrara stone and amateur photographers will be knocking down your door just to get a shot of their computer, latte, and recent lip gloss purchase arranged artfully to the side of your sink. And who can blame them? There is no denying marble’s current status as a trending material in fashion and design. Whether chiseled into geometric earrings in the hands of Dior, utilized as a luxe-neutral backdrop in editorial spreads, or transformed into the most monumental of mousepads ($$$), the stone has never not been cool, likely due to its ability to convey elegance and polish without doing much to it.
Meanwhile, in art—or sculpture, more specifically—where pale, luminous surfaces have long been synonymous with classical forms and idealized beauty, marble is getting a makeover. In Teatro Romano, Francesco Vezzoli’s current exhibition at MoMA PS1, the artist reimagines five Roman busts in full color, in collaboration with a team of art conservators and scholars.
Teatro Romano suggests our experience with Greek and Roman statuary may be a bit more sober than their creators originally intended: Extensive research over the last century has shown that ancient sculpture was often painted in color, a practice known as polychromy. This layer of artistry has largely fallen away over time, significantly altering our modern view of classical aesthetics.
After spending a chilly morning in a darkened gallery with Vezzoli’s freshly painted heads, whose ranks include a satyr, a bearded man, a poet, an anonymous goddess figure, and the Egyptian goddess, Isis—each starkly displayed in a spotlit glass case—I found myself surprised by the personality and energy present in each face. The busts weren’t the unapproachable god-figures with blank, all-seeing eyes many of us have encountered in art history textbooks and on building facades, nor are they the gaudy reproductions put forth in past polychrome experiments (those who have visited the Nashville Parthenon will know what I’m talking about). Instead, they were something closer to human—their gazes equal parts friendly and critical, while still beautiful, still transcendent.
This interpretation makes sense—ancient figurative sculptures were meant to act as lifelike stand-ins for heavenly figures. In Teatro Romano, the artist was free to imagine how color might best convey the perfect features of gods and goddesses, and the flaws of mortals. According to PS1’s Curatorial Assistant Margaret Aldredge, a collaborator on the exhibition, “Vezzoli's choice of paint was subjective rather than objective. As there were no traces of color left on the marble sculptures, he was able to select a palette for each that spoke to their various characters.”
Isis, identified by her symbolic headpiece, was worshipped throughout the Roman Empire and associated with motherhood and protection. In Vezzoli’s interpretation, her dark hair and kohl-lined eyes evoke the Egyptian origins of the cult goddess. His blonde goddess figure, green eyed and full-lipped, presents a vision of ethereal beauty not so far removed from today’s conventions, even with her nose half-chipped off.
This is not the first time Vezzoli’s sculpture has graced the pages of ITG; back in 2012, his Antique Not Antique: Pedicure caught filmmaker/correspondent Liz Goldwyn’s eye at Art Basel Miami. The artist has long been focused on exploring the connection between visual art and the worlds of fashion and beauty. In fact, in a recent interview with Carl Swanson in New York magazine, Vezzoli tossed around the idea of a Teatro Romano follow-up collaboration with the goddess of makeup herself, Pat McGrath. Heavens above, we beseech thee, let it be so!
Until that day comes, head over to PS1 and spend some time with the busts. Teatro Romano runs through March 8, 2015.
Photo courtesy of MoMA PS1.