Special to The National Herald.
ATHENS – The Parthenon Marbles shine in all their glory only in the Attic light, but even here, the “eyes of an artist” help visitors to the magnificent Acropolis Museum see and feel Phidias’ sculpting genius.
Dr. Katherine Schwab, artist and professor of art history at Fairfield University, has been drawing the Parthenon metopes – the panels of scenes alternating with the abstract triple-bar triglyphs all the way around the Parthenon’s exterior – for more than two decades.
Her dissertation for NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts entailed a comparison of vase representations with the metopes and “that was the first step plunging in, but my first encounter with the Parthenon was with College Year in Athens when I was a student at Scripps College in California.”
Classes were held inside the Parthenon, a thrill that is no longer possible. “I was already interested in archaeology and had a passion for ancient and Greek art and mythology…and the moment I left, it was a matter of ‘how soon could I return.’”
She came back after college for the summer session of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (ASCSA). “That was a watershed moment in my life…a six-week very intense experience… its Gennadius Library is without parallel in the world.”
Now Schwab is a professor of art history and visual culture at Fairfield University and her research areas include the metopes and Ancient Greek hairstyles. Her work on the Parthenon metopes has yielded new information which has been presented in several book chapters and publications.
She has come almost every year since the last 1990s – initially for a short time during spring break, but since becoming a full professor she comes for three weeks. This year was special: five weeks. “By spending so much time looking this year I have been able to see many things I had not been able to observe before.”
Drawing at different time of day is best because some things are only visible under certain light – “even the reflection of the light off the Acropolis itself makes a difference,” she said.
Her drawings began with experiments with pencil on paper, trying different kinds of implements and papers. “It gets down to the tools you use, she said, and eventually she found a good combination.
“Initially I worked the figures more, creating shadow around the contours of the figures, but that proved unsatisfactory”, not yielding new knowledge.
The drawings published by Austrian Archaeologist Camillo Praschniker in the 1920s have guided researchers for decades and Schwab said that because the existing Praschniker drawings of the Metopes in the East, North, and West are quite good,” she realized she needed to think about the work differently.
Schwab was also struck by the fact that archaeologist assumed that the south metopes were the only ones carved deeply – “but they are all carved at the same depth, so I knew I had to come up with a new way of drawing. That meant working the background,” meaning “shading the background around the contour figure and letting what remains of any carved figure ‘pop out’ as a result.”
She now works with very specific pencils, mechanical pencils, “very fine, with very fine little stiches of graphite I place on the paper…I’m teasing out forms for my proposed reconstruction drawing, noticing things that what Praschnicker could not.”
Her remarkable drawings have toured the United States during the past four years, but they are not art for art’s sake. Their purpose is to “add to our knowledge.”
She already has a full set of drawings of what the figures look like and for the east and the north in the Museum. Her drawings appear next to the actual metopes as prints of greyscale scans.
“It’s a great honor. It’s a privilege and I am very grateful.” Scholars respect the drawings and visitors appreciate that they present an idea of what to look for given the state of many metopes.
Her full restorations are eagerly awaited.
Schwab, who was born in Claremont, CA and moved to Washington, DC area at age seven, appreciates the opportunity her family provided for her remarkable life through private lessons given that she is virtually alone as an artist among them – her Swiss paternal grandfather, however, although an attorney, was an excellent painter.
RESOLVING A HELEN OF TROY DEBATE
Early in the morning she can be seen drawing the north metopes, containing the figures of Helen and Menelaus and which reveal the theme of the entire north side of the Parthenon – the sacking of Troy.”
Those metopes perfectly illustrate the value of her work. There is some debate among scholars over the state of mind of Menelaus; some see him edging forwards her in one panel, calmly though menacingly, and wimpilly forgiving her in the next one.
Others see the irresistible power of Eros, believing Menelaus is rushing towards her in a murderous rage when the god of love strikes a blow mightier than any sword’s. Schwab believes her methods reveal graphical indications of high velocity in the King’s movement, inclining to the later view.
“It’s almost like the triglyph serves as a perfect…pause – and we realize in the next moment the force of Eros, combined with Aphrodite, vanquish his rage, and he will fall in love with his wife all over again.”
A depiction of the violent inner battle between the passions of love and rage would resonate in Plato’s Athens – and the sculptor Phidias had just the hands to show how Beauty could overcome hate.
Even after 10 years of War, Helen would have been at the height of her beauty. Schwab said “mid-teens would not be unusual for marriage…we think the Caryatids are maidens around the age of 15, on the verge of marriage,” so Helen may have been less than 30 when Menelaus saw her again.
Another theme illustrated by the drawings is the contrast between presence and absence. “The tension between the two was unexpectedly appealing, “during the drawings’ tours she said.
“What exists today and what was chopped away” by vandals, leaving behind in some metopes “these ephemeral image-like things happening on the surface is compelling “and contemporary artists love it.”
Scholars now believe the metopes were damaged by anti-pagan zealots between the 4th and 6th centuries AD who gained access via scaffolding, possibly put up to facilitate the transformation of the building from a temple of Athena to a church of the Theotokos.
It has been concluded that axes and hammers were used to smash perhaps the more objectionable scenes. Schwab adds that the damage from modern air pollution was minimal and is easily repaired by modern laser devices. “The conservators here are extremely talented and work with the best technologies possible. The metopes are in beautiful shape given what has occurred to them.”
People from all over the world speak to Schwab as she draws, and she loves talking about the work – and her beloved metopes. “I learned so much from so many people,” viewing her drawings when she lectures during the tours.
So next year, when she returns in May and you visit the Museum, if you see something, say something.