Plaster replicas of the running frieze created to adorn the most iconic symbol of classical antiquity are once again teaching tools and objets d’art for certain students and professors at Herron School of Art and Design, part of the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus.
But this time around, second-generation casts of the frieze from Greece’s Parthenon are both a testimonial to the prominent role that Herron played in the training of past generations of professional artists, and a springboard to its multidisciplinary collaborations for future generations.
A 6-foot panel with the relief figures of running horses hangs as art on a wall in the office of Jason Kelly, director of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute. The plaster artwork is a scaled replica of a section of the 524-foot low-relief marble sculpture created between 443 and 438 B.C. for the Parthenon, a temple to the Greek goddess Athena.
The panel is one from several sets of plaster casts created last summer by Kelly, who teaches history in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI; Herron associate professor of art history Jennifer Lee; and then-Herron sculpture student Benjamin Sunderlin. The trio used rubber molds crafted in 2005 from now rare, early 20th-century casts. The exploratory summer project grew out of the partners’ common interests.
A search of the Herron archives reveals that in 1924, the Greek government gave eight life-size casts of Parthenon frieze panels to Herron, then a museum and professional art school under the name John Herron Art Institute. Herron in 1931 purchased 14 scaled plaster casts of sections of the frieze considered most desirable for teaching purposes, according to Kelly.
Herron acquired its “original” casts during the era when museums readily exhibited white plaster casts as stand-ins for genuine antiquities that were then hard to come by, and professional art schools used the plaster casts of the Parthenon sculptures, considered “models of ancient beauty,” as teaching tools for students of drawing.
Plaster Parthenon frieze casts played a prominent role in the history of art and art education over several centuries, beginning with the Renaissance, Lee said.
“Nearly all art schools owned casts of important classical sculptures, which were central to students’ training ,” Kelly said.
But with time, the use of live nude models became the norm for teaching human illustration, and the use of “fakes” or copies in museums was frowned upon. And the once popular and ubiquitous plaster casts of the Parthenon frieze became obsolete for both intended purposes.
“Most of the art schools just threw their (casts) out with the trash,” Kelly said. “It is actually hard to find full sets of these casts.”
Herron incorporated the obsolete casts into the décor of the walls of its original buildings on North Pennsylvania Street.
When the art school, then a part of Indiana University, made the move to its IUPUI home in Eskenazi Hall in 2005, a Herron student created a set of six rubber molds of the wall casts. Soon Kelly plans to incorporate the casts into the curriculum for art history students who are studying ancient paintings and will paint the new casts in modern colors.
“I can’t wait to see how undergraduate students in drawing interpret the casts for modern audiences,” Kelly said. The Parthenon project is a “great springboard for what we are going to see between IAHI and schools (at IUPUI) into the future.”