Living Color

Island Life


“The idealization of white marble is an aesthetic born of a mistake.”   
from the article Color Blind by Margaret Talbot in the New Yorker- 10.29.18

The multicolored peacock on NBC- that is now just a stylized network figment of its former self- actually used to have a significant role on the TV screen back in the day. Now that I am sitting here and thinking about it, I am not recalling exactly  how it worked. The way I am visualizing it though has the bird appearing in the middle of the screen with its tail lit up in a random, rainbow spectrum as the announcer states in voiceover that the program that is immediately following will be visible to the viewer in living color- a viewer that was lucky enough, that is, to have a color television set. For many years, all we had was an early entertainment center that had a radio, a TV screen that wasn’t much more than 15” across, and a monaural record player that was accessible if you lifted the lid on the top of this dark-finished, wooden box that sat in the corner of the room. It wasn’t until we got my grandparents’ hand-me-down color set, that was also ensconced in its own wooden box (without the radio and record player), that I was able to bask in the full effect of the peacock’s plumage, and to enjoy programs as they were then intended to be seen.

For years it was enough to just tweak the rabbit ear antennae that our black and white sets came with in order to get one of the seven stations that came out of New York City, that was 40 or so miles to the south of us. To get better color reception though we had to get up on the roof and install one of those aluminum antennas that looked like a multi-winged, flying directional indicator, and then make sure to point it toward the City, which on a clear day you could see if you were standing on top of our chimney. While it seems paltry in comparison to the “selection” offered on today’s cable listings, it felt like there was more stuff that was actually worth watching back then, even with all the stations signing off with a flying flag and the national anthem at midnight. And things seemed more special because, for one thing, they were.

One special event we always looked forward to was the annual showing of the Wizard of Oz, which it seems was always screened this time of year, as was Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers. It didn’t really matter that the screen was small and that we only had black and white- it was the rarity of the event and the magic of the story that made it all worth while- especially getting to go off, so to speak, to see the wizard. It wasn’t until sometime in the mid seventies, when I went to a friend’s house and sat down for a viewing of the Wizard on a color TV that I finally got the joke about the horse of a different color, because I could finally see that the horse that was pulling Dorothy’s carriage around Oz had actually changed color. It was both that revelation and the fact that the film started and ended in black and white with a giant color spectacle sandwiched in the middle that gave me an entirely different perspective on how one was  meant to experience the wonders of Oz.

Along similar but reversed lines, Ms. Talbot’s New Yorker article (quoted above) brings to light both old and new research and evidence that the white marble statuary of Greek and Roman antiquity had actually been conceived and produced as stone sculptures, but then finished with a surface of brightly colored paint portraying a wide range of skin tones and colors, along with a wild variety of coloring for the clothes some of the statues wore. While this alters my perception of these ancient works, in many ways this revelation is not all that surprising. At the same time it answers a question I’ve had about these statues for years. I was always perplexed by the fact that so much care was put into these pieces in terms of correctness of anatomy and light and shadow, while the eyes of the statues were left eerily smooth and blank. It would have seemed an easy enough task to scoop out a wee bit of stone to allow shadow to suggest a pupil or iris. Knowing that the details of the eyes were going to be painted in, however, would have made that extra bit of carving unnecessary, as well as allowing the eyeball to remain a perfectly smooth sphere beneath the paint. It was that clean roundness, and painterly skill, that would serve then to make the eyes appear so real.

That these classic works of the ancient world lost their colors along the way brings up the questions of permanence and transience- of archival concerns and historical neglect. It is one of those things that artists both fret over and ignore. As a result of some active or passive process,  part of the iconography of a civilization that had a strong influence on western and worldwide development is now perceived as pure and austere, where it was originally conceived of as something else that was celebratory of color and diversity as well as of shadow and form. As it is, the article mentions that white nationalists have currently co-opted the white purity that these statues have wrongly been interpreted as representing. When they were first created however, it was general knowledge that these statues were colorful representations of who the Romans and Greeks were. Who knows why they were allowed to fade away to their basic stone structure and become things that are not really representative of the cultures that existed when they were originally conceived? This process of change and forgetting took thousands of years. We now, here in this country have a richness of embarrassments, and his political party, that have collectively drained the color out of this country and its ghost of a democracy, and that only took a couple of years. Hopefully it won’t take thousands more years to get back to the original concept and maybe get it right and perhaps better this time. Some would call that progress