Violent destruction by human hands and degradation by air pollution have transformed the Parthenon east and north metope relief sculptures into ephemeral and evocative images, hinting at ancient mythological battles. These metopes, or marble panels, were located above the columns of the Parthenon where they would have been readily visible on the Athenian Acropolis throughout antiquity. Today, the original metopes are displayed in the new Acropolis Museum.
Beginning in 2005, the American art historian and archaeologist Katherine A. Schwab (b. 1954) experimented with graphite and pastel to record her observations of the metopes. A tension emerges between what is preserved and what has been lost, creating a theme of presence within absence. The narratives of the Giants defeated by the Olympian Gods and the Sacking of Troy are again recreated at each viewing.
Schwab’s drawings arise from the intersection of artistic ability and archaeological expertise, revealing new observations and discoveries about these two metopes series. Her experiments with brown pastel pencil and graphite, to develop the negative ground, highlight visible forms that emerge as if suspended in an imagined space.
The exhibition begins with sixteen drawings of the east metopes, where the theme is the Olympian Gods fighting the Giants for supremacy of Mount Olympus. Variation in tone and depth are explored, ranging from the darkest tones to soft and light fleeting shapes. One reconstruction drawing shows Schwab’s proposal for East metope 14 where Helios drives a chariot above Okeanos signaling victory.
The exhibition continues with twelve graphite drawings of the north metopes, illustrating the Sacking of Troy. Schwab’s use of graphite in these drawings reflects the vagaries of the surviving carved surfaces. In some the maximum depth is preserved, allowing the viewer to readily imagine the missing fragments. Elsewhere, the figures are elusive, requiring the viewer to look carefully, contemplating the poses and actions evoked. The final section includes drawings of figures and details from the Parthenon frieze and pediments.
Exoticism is a provocative term in the world of art history. By its very definition, the word indicates that the work of art it describes is “different” or “other” than what is considered normal.
When trade routes began to open up to the Middle East and Asia during the 16th century, the awareness of the exotic areas of the world that most Westerners had never seen became an enticing idea to many. Exoticism became a 19th and 20th century trend in art and design that stemmed from an over-simplified fantasy of Westerners perceptions. Although Africa, the Middle East and Asia were erroneously considered more primitive at the time, they were simultaneously admired for being quaint and uncorrupted by industrial capitalism. Many Westerners believed that industrialization had made the design and architecture of Europe too utilitarian, and they were drawn to the beauty and aesthetic superiority of non-Western art, culture, and design. They found these “newly discovered” parts of the world quite fascinating. Interest in archaeological findings in Egypt and other areas of the Middle East helped to create a phenomenon that cultural historians now refer to as Egyptomania. The emphasis of geometric designs in Islamic art helped to influence home interiors of the 19th century, and the fine and decorative arts of China and Japan left major impacts on European and American decorative arts throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
While Exoticism can certainly be seen as an important trend in art and design, the trend’s place in the overall history of the time period must also be considered. Exoticism’s popularity was a product of Western exploration, but also of Western imperialism and dominance. The interpretations of these “exotic” cultures in paintings, reproductions of arts and crafts, and performance pieces were frequently manipulated for European audiences for maximum effect and consumption. These manipulated interpretations were often hurtful to these beautiful cultures that Westerners so revered.
TPS 26: The International Competition, juried by Alison Nordström, will feature 50 images by 40 photographers worldwide. The show opens with a public reception on May 18, 2017, from 5:30-7:00pm at the J. Wayne Stark Galleries at Texas A&M University in College Station, TX, and will hang through July 16, 2017, before traveling to other venues across the state.