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The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases at the Getty Villa, June 8-September 4, 2006

May 11, 2006

LOS ANGELES—Some of the greatest masterpieces of Athenian pottery, produced over 2,000 years ago, will be on view in The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases, at the Getty Villa from June 8–September 4, 2006.   Focusing on a subject never before examined as a whole, this exhibition explores the array of innovative techniques developed in Athenian workshops that produced extraordinary painted pottery decorated with exquisite colors, opulent gilding, and detailed relief decoration.  The exhibition expands the understanding of ancient Greek vases beyond the distinctive black- and red-figure decorations for which they are known, and introduces audiences for the first time to the full range and variety of ancient Greek Athenian creativity in the field.

The Colors of Clay is the first major loan exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum at the newly renovated Getty Villa, which opened to the public earlier this year.  It brings together over approximately 100 colorful vases from the J. Paul Getty Museum and other collections around the world, including the British Museum, the Musée du Louvre in France, and the State Hermitage Museum in Russia.  The works were produced from about 550 to 340 B.C., an especially fertile period of experimentation in the Athenian pottery industry. Alternative techniques that emerged during this time include outline drawing and the use of a lustrous coral-red gloss, polychromy, gilding, and molded elements that produced interesting human- and animal-shaped vessels.  The exhibition highlights the work of artisans whose inventiveness broke new ground in pottery decoration, and also includes exceptional painted pottery produced with familiar black- and red-figures.

In addition, the exhibition reunites 10 remarkable vessels that were dispersed soon after they were discovered together in 1890 in Athens from the Sotades Tomb, named after the mid-fifth-century B.C. potter whose signature was found on vases in the tomb. The objects, which feature references to themes of honey and resurrection, were possibly purchased by a husband for his deceased wife.

For this exhibition, art history and archaeology have joined with conservation and science to investigate the broad spectrum of ancient methods and materials used, many of which are not completely understood.  Getty conservators and scientists examined vases using microscopes, ultraviolet light, and analytical instruments.  This research enabled pigments, glosses, the application of gilding, and even seemingly lost features of vase painting to be more fully explainedunderstood.  Technical and analytical results of their studies are included in the exhibition, providing insight into the various ancient processes.

Beyond Black and Red
While Athenian vases are most closely associated with the familiar black- and red-figure technique, this exhibition reveals that ancient vase painters worked in a wide range of color that moved far beyond the black and red tradition.

Artisans working in black-figure often added purplish red and bright white to enliven their compositions, while those working in red-figure used dilute gloss to produce golden tones of brown and yellow.  Special techniques invented in the late 500s B.C.—coral red, Six’s technique, and white ground—were used to expand the coloristic effects produced from the iron-rich clay of Athens. Polychromy with and gilding wereas also used to create stunning, glittering surfaces that brought vases to life.

Athenian vessels were used at drinking parties and wedding celebrations, awarded as prizes, given as gifts to the gods, and left as grave offerings. Their quality and beauty made them popular in foreign markets as well and they were widely exported. Today, the legacy of these objects lies partly in their preservation of much of the imagery that contributes to our understanding of the visual cultureal of ancient Greece. Their decorative scenes tell stories about the exploits of gods and heroes, athletics, warfare, and everyday life.  The lingering influence of ancient Athenian pottery can also be seen in the word "ceramic," which comes from the Greek word keramikos, meaning "of pottery," which is itself derived from keramos, meaning "potter’s clay."

The Colors of Clay: Special Techniques in Athenian Vases is guest curated by independent scholar Beth Cohen, who is also author of the accompanying catalogue of the same title from Getty Publications.  The book features eight essays with 140 color and 95 black-and-white illustrations.  The eEssays will examine conservation work on vases performed by the Getty Conservation Institute and explore particular techniques or vase types and their history, among other subjects. (Hardcover, $85, available at the Museum Store, by calling 800-223-3431 or 310-440-7059, or online at

Note to editors:  Images available on request.

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Tracy Gilbert
Getty Communications Dept.

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The J. Paul Getty Trust is an international cultural and philanthropic institution devoted to the visual arts that features the Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Museum, and the Getty Research Institute. The J. Paul Getty Trust and Getty programs serve a varied audience from two locations: the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Malibu.

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