Revealing a different history
For several centuries, scholars have known that the marble sculptures of the ancient Greeks and Romans were originally painted in brilliant colours, although today we are accustomed to seeing the marble white. The series of photographs by Espen Gleditsch that has been hung in the UiT Medicine and Health Studies Building reflects on the possible meanings of this whiteness.
Tekst Mona Gjessing
The art in the Medicine and Health Studies Building acts as a reminder to users of the building that the fields of medicine and health studies are inextricably linked to prevailing ideas in any particular period and place about what is meant by a human and the human body. In this sense, Espen Gleditsch’s three photographs Illoneus, Aphrodite of Knidos and Narcissus fit hand-in-glove with the guiding concept for the art project for the building: People at the centre.
– There is something completely unique about marble as a material that makes it appear very flesh-like and soft. It seems completely natural to me for my photographs to be placed in a context where the discipline being studied is anatomy, says Gleditsch.
– And of course, another thing is that classical art, including the marble sculptures of antiquity, has shaped our views of the human body and physical ideals. While this isn’t an issue that I’ve been working on consciously, the cropped details in the images show fragmented bodies and give a hint of the transitory.
Gleditsch has on several occasions used photographic projects to investigate the mechanisms behind the writing of history. In particular, he is interested in unintended shifts in meaning. This also applies to the photographic series Faded Remains, which comprises black-and-white images depicting details of marble sculptures that are framed behind coloured glass. A text that accompanied the series when it was exhibited at the Golsa gallery in Oslo stated: «Sculpture in white marble has come to mean something more than simply classical antiquity. It has also become an important part of Western identity.»
– In our part of the world, there has been a tendency throughout history to view whiteness as something of aesthetically high value, as something ordered and structured, at the expense of colour. There is a double critique embedded both in my last project, Polymorphous Magical Substance, which related to Modernist architecture, and Faded Remains. They encompass a critique of the Western treatment of colour and the historical mechanisms and assumptions that have made this treatment possible. In the first project, the focus is on the photographic documentation of a central housing exhibition in Stuttgart in the 1920s, where colour got lost along the way. Black-and-white photographs of multi-coloured Modernist architecture had such great significance on how this architecture was perceived that as early as the 1930s it was usual to consider white façades as one of the most characteristic features of Modernist architecture. Accordingly, the idea that Modernist architecture was white was based on a misunderstanding, and is linked to the interaction of photography, mass media and the dissemination of images in the 20th century. This interaction, and the fact that photography can contribute to unintended shifts in meaning, interests me just as much as Modernist architecture in itself, says Gleditsch.
In Faded Remains, the artist goes further into the idolization of whiteness as linked to Fascist ideas about racial hygiene. As a result, among the 16 photographs of classical marble sculptures, he has also included photographs of marble sculptures produced during the 1940s and commissioned by Mussolini and the Italian Fascist party Partito Nazionale Fascista. The Fascists wanted to forge historical links with the golden days of the Roman Empire, and their interest in ruins facilitated an easy link with classical, fragmented and re-constructed marble sculptures.
– The colours may look as though they are printed directly on the photographs, but they are actually on the glass in the frames, where we’ve used a specially produced, transparent film that adheres to the actual glass. They are something the viewer sees the black-and-white photographs through. All the colours I used are based on the colour palette that researchers have determined was used on classical sculptures. Researchers in Germany and Denmark who have investigated colour and classical sculpture have used, among other things, advanced photographic techniques and chemical analyses to find traces of colour. They have also investigated how parts of sculptures that were formerly painted have deteriorated at different rates in order to determine what pigments were applied. If we see with the eyes of our own time, it can be tempting to describe the use of colour in antiquity as gaudy, but it is important to remember that the sculptures were displayed in completely different surroundings than is the case today. While the sculptures today stand in isolation, in their own time they usually belonged to large groups of sculptures placed in gloomy rooms with no electric light, explains Gleditsch.
Gleditsch usually uses a large-format analogue camera. It turned out to be difficult, however, to use such a camera to photograph classical sculptures in the Glyptothek in Munich and the Vatican Museum in Rome. A ban on the use of tripods in both collections led Gleditsch to purchase a digital camera. Although Gleditsch usually takes photographs with analogue film, he points out that the digital production process is not completely different from his usual practice.
– After developing films I’ve shot with an analogue camera, I always scan the images and do the post-processing digitally. I also do the digital printing myself. For me, it’s always only the first part of the process that is analogue. This gives me the expressive quality and feeling of film combined with the possibilities offered by digital post-production, explains Gleditsch.
Gleditsch explains that he will be continuing his investigations into how the mechanisms of history writing, dissemination and subjective experience affect our view of the past, and his project on the treatment of colour in Western culture has by no means concluded. Meanwhile, Gleditsch has used the summer of 2018 to ramble, camera in hand, in the Fjugstad Forest Nature Reserve between Åsgårdstrand and Borre in Vestfold County.
– Currently I’m working on my contribution to a group exhibition that will be shown in Haugar Vestfold Art Museum. The exhibition is themed around Edvard Munch’s presence in Åsgårdstrand. Fjugstad is Scandinavia’s largest contiguous ash forest and was the setting for many of Munch’s images, such as The Frieze of Life. The area is important for the Munch motifs linked to the landscape of Åsgårdstrand and, not least, his treatment of light. The place resonates with some of the mystical aspects of Munch’s work, says Gleditsch.
Read more about this art project here, on the project page for the Medicine and Health studies building (MH2), The Arctic University of Norway, Tromsø.