colour in architecture 2

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen has a major collection of Greek and Roman antiquities that are displayed in a series of large, top-lit galleries that were added to the museum in the first decade of the 20th century.

Statues and busts, set on simple plinths, are carefully spaced so that each piece can be seen clearly from most angles and appreciated as an individual work of art.

Nearly all the sculptures are the soft pale colour of the original stone from which they were carved, although a few pieces are made from expensive coloured marble, and most have fine, intricate carved details. Any decoration in the architecture of the room would be a distraction so the walls of the galleries are plain but are painted in strong, dark colours with a different colour for each room - including a dark blue, a deep dull or sage green and a deep brick red.

Different colours are used for different periods or different countries and the scheme would not be as effective if the same colour had been used through all the rooms. However, two of the photographs here are duplicated in black and white to show that, in part, the success of the scheme is achieved by using colours that, although very different in hue, are close in tone to give some but subtle visual unity to the sequence of rooms and to allow for a consistent level of artificial lighting for the whole collection.

This is very confident use of colour in interior design - not only appropriate for the simple, architectural style of the rooms themselves but providing a good background for the statues. 


A fascinating part of the display includes a Roman bust of a young man alongside a duplicate that has been painted. The colours are accurate, recovered by careful analysis of fragments of paint that had survived in deeper under cutting in the carving of the original piece. This dark polychrome effect, imitating natural or lifelike colours for flesh, hair and, most striking, the eyes is initially a shock … our general preconception is that classical sculptures were, are and should be stone coloured. That originally many piece of classical sculpture were strongly coloured like medieval and 16th-century sculpture is a challenge because, with their colour restored, the works look as if they should date from the 19th century and look as if they come from a macabre wax works. It is as if our sense of good taste has been offended.

Of course, this research also has implications for our preconceptions about the overall appearance of the temples and palaces where these sculptures were originally displayed because since the classical revival, particularly with buildings from the 18th and 19th century, we have seen classical architecture as tastefully restrained - in effect we are seeing the Classical World through 18th-century eyes and 18th-century perceptions: the sun-bleached columns and pediments of pale limestone that we admire as tourists do not show the buildings as they would have been seen by the people of ancient Athens or ancient Rome.


Obviously this raises fascinating and broader issues about colour in modern architecture and design: for a start, should pieces of furniture only be made in the colours initially determined by the designer; should interiors be restored to original colour schemes even if that challenges modern taste or does a change of cladding material on a building or a new cover in a pattern or a new colour for a piece of furniture diminish the value and importance of the original design or simply make it more relevant for the present period? To what extent does what we see as accepted good taste now control how we see and appreciate art and architecture from the past?

The significant research work on paint analysis and original colour by the staff at the Glyptotek is to be marked by a major exhibition at the museum in the Autumn with the title The fourth dimension: colour in ancient sculpture. It will open on the 4th of September 2014 and run through until the end of November.


Additional notes:

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Dantes Plads, Copenhagen

Collection donated to the State in 1888 by Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of the Carlsberg brewery. 

A new purpose-built museum designed by the architect Vilhelm Dahlerup opened in 1897.

Architect for the second phase, built between 1901 and 1906, was Hack Kampmann

Most recent additions and alterations to the museum are by Henning Larsen in 1996, by Dissing + Weitling around 2006 and then by Bonde Ljungar Arkitekter