Beautiful Images of the Greek Ancient Past

New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias

The exhibition, An Archaeologist’s Eye: The Parthenon Drawings of Katherine A. Schwab at the Consulate General of Greece in New York through February 13, 2014 is something to stay and dream by; to be present when the Olympian Gods fought the Earth-born Giants for supremacy of Mount Olympus and the sacking of Troy because the drawings show not only what remains of the east and north metopes of the Parthenon, but traces of what was once depicted there. 

Professor Ronald Davidson, Fairfield University. The Honorable Mr. Georgios Iliopoulos, Dr. Katherine Schwab, and the Rev. Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., during remarks.

Professor Ronald Davidson, Fairfield University. The Honorable Mr. Georgios Iliopoulos, Dr. Katherine Schwab, and the Rev. Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., during remarks.

There is presence within absence In Professor Schwab’s drawings. Tension emerges between what is preserved and what has been lost through a new way of recording her observations that she began developing in 2005 using her artistic ability and archaeological expertise to convey what has survived of the metopes.  Using brown pastel pencils and graphite pencils she creates variations in tone and depth and nuances of surface variation that visually communicate the preserved depth of the surviving contours of figures within these metope compositions, which were severely damaged not later than the 6th century CE when the temple was converted to a Christian church.

And they are beautiful to look at.

Launching the exhibition was a reception at the Consulate on January 15 attended by The Honorable George Iliopoulos Consul General of Greece in New York, and Anthoussa Iliopoulos,  Rev. Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., President of Fairfield University, Mr. Nikos Papaconstantinou, Press Counselor at the Press & Communication Office in New York, Reverend Archdeacon Panteleimon Papadopoulos Dr. Jill Deupi, Director of the Bellarmine Museum of Art, and other distinguished guests.

The reason for the gathering, Rev. Jeffrey von Arx, S.J., President of Fairfield University said to the guests, “is to celebrate and appreciate on the first day of their national tour the creative achievement of Professor Katherine Schwab who has given us in such insight and a fresh way of appreciating some of the Parthenon sculptures, combining art history so effectively with archaeology.”  He went on to say that “Professor Schwab has been most instrumental in developing the special relationship Fairfield has with the Consulate, the Greek American community which the University values so much as it also does its relationship, as a Jesuit and Catholic university, with the Greek Orthodox Church and its Archbishop and clergy”.

Professor Schwab came through with an interview for the GN even though she was snowed in during the blizzard in Connecticut.

GN:  What gave you the idea to make the Parthenon drawings?

KS: Line drawings have been part of a long tradition in archaeology, and they are especially useful when the figure is relatively well preserved.  But what might help us see relief sculpture when it is not well preserved, let alone severely damaged?

I needed to find a way to understand what I was seeing in the Parthenon east and north metopes through first hand study and by looking at photographs, both published and my own digital photographs.

My initial experiments only showed shading of the carved contour of the figures.  But then I realized that the important drawings made by Camillo Praschniker in1928, which showed what was left of the figures, were excellent and quite reliable.  Instead, I realized that it remained difficult to understand the original depth of carving, let alone possible actions assumed by the figures.  This led to my current approach, working the background with shading. As a result, the figures and general compositions began to emerge from the background.

My early attempts included pastel pencil, in various shades of browns to test the legibility of my approach.  In some ways, this form of shading was very helpful in seeing the entire composition more clearly, including the depth of carving as well as the volume of each figure. I liked the results of the pastel pencil, which I used for most of the east metopes.  When I turned to the north metopes I changed to using a very nice artist’s mechanical pencil to show the details of what is preserved.  The medium seems to suit the state of preservation in the north series, and perhaps I was beginning to find a means that work well for the purpose at hand.

GN: How did you choose each subject you drew?

KS: My dissertation topic was a comparison of vase painting with the Parthenon metope program. Later on my focus was exclusively on the east and north metopes, thanks to permission from the Ministry of Culture about a decade ago.  As a result, my work has been very systematic, proceeding through the east metopes and then turning to the north metopes.  Currently, I am far along in developing proposed reconstructions of the original compositions for the east series.  One of them is on view in the exhibition, Helios driving a four-horse chariot in East Metope 14.  The drawing also appears in the new guide to the New Acropolis Museum published very recently.

The selection of drawings from the frieze and pediment are the kind of occasional drawing I make in order to explore the Parthenon style of sculpture and to better understand proportions.  It is always a humbling experience to draw these sculptures, but also an incredible experience to look very intently while analyzing what I see.

GN: How were the items in the exhibit chosen?

KS: The earliest conversations with Dr. John Wilson, Director of the Timken Museum of Art in San Diego, centered on the east and north metopes.  Subsequent conversations with the other organizers made it clear that a selection of my drawings from the frieze and pediments would be worth including.  Some of the venues on the tour will exhibit only the metope series due to thematic choice or space availability.   I am very glad that all 35 drawings could be displayed at the Consulate General of Greece in NYC.

GN: Did you have art training, or is it another one of your talents?

KS: I love to draw, and throughout my early years making art was always a part of what I did.  I stopped taking classes when I began college, turning to art history and the opportunity to study in Athens with the program College Year in Athens where I spent my entire junior year.

A turning point came about ten years ago when I had the chance to take Tibet thangka painting lessons from a master while I was traveling with my husband in the western Himalayas.  For about two weeks we were in McLeod Ganj, above Dharamsala, and every day I met with the Tibetan teacher for about 1 ½ hours, then he gave me homework that usually took about 4-5 hours to complete.  He rapidly taught me the visual vocabulary of Tibetan painting, and I was willing to do the work.  Importantly, he taught me how to use a mechanical pencil and ways to elicit subtle marks by working the point of the lead.  For example, he could change my first attempt at drawing the eyes of a Tibetan meditating Buddha, based on a diagram with strict proportions laid out, from a decent rendering into perfection.  He did this through the way he handled the mechanical pencil.  Smallest of the details never escaped his attention while reviewing my homework, and he always brought my work to a better place through praise and good humor.

The intense drawing experience in a different setting and purpose proved incredibly helpful to me as I returned to my Parthenon drawings.  I also would like to note here that two studio art colleagues at Fairfield, Jane Sutherland and Suzanne Chamlin, have been generous with their advice in looking at my drawings over several years.

GN: Will you continue that work?

KS: Yes, I have many drawings ahead of me!

GN: Have you done any other archaeological drawings, or any other kind of artwork?

KS: No other archaeological drawings.  Other artwork—only in high school where I enjoyed painting.  Currently, I have a really nice paint app on my iPad and have had fun painting in color, often views of the sea, Greek islands, the California surf.

GN: The GN has written about your Caryatid hairstyle project.  Will you be doing anything like that again?

KS: One of our future projects at the Bellarmine Museum of Art is an exhibition on “Hair in the Classical World,” which is slated for the Fall of 2015.  It will be a superb opportunity to look at male and female hair styles in the context of ancient Greece, Cyprus, and Rome, with cross-cultural connections as well as analyzing why many of these hairstyles were important visible and often public ways of indicating stages of life.

Katherine Schwab is a member of the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Professor of Art History in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Fairfield University, and Curator of the Plaster Cast Collection in the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University.

The exhibition, which will continue to five more destinations in the US beginning with the Greek Embassy/Smithsonian Associates Washington, D.C.. has been organized by the Bellarmine Museum of Art, Fairfield University, in Fairfield, Connecticut, Creighton University, in Omaha, and the Timken Museum of Art, in San Diego.

For the complete schedule, please see:

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