What is the relevance, in the age of the laser scan, of realistic paintings of ancient sculptures? Are they works of homage or emulation? Representations or translations? Such questions animate the exhibition Rocks, Paper, Memory: Wendy Artin’s Watercolor Paintings of Ancient Sculptures, opening at the Kelsey on June 5.

The exhibition highlights two recent projects by Wendy Artin, a master watercolorist whose work has been widely praised and exhibited, including a recent display at the American Academy in Rome. The first project is a series of one-to-one-scale paintings of the sculpted frieze of the Parthenon; the second is a group of paintings of assorted subjects illustrating poems on classical themes by the late Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney.

Artin’s paintings of the Parthenon frieze are extraordinary not only for their fidelity to their subjects but also for their exploration of the possibilities of the watercolor medium. Thus, they invite viewers to enjoy the beauty of the Parthenon frieze, while they simultaneously insist on their own autonomy as paintings. One way to understand their relation to the original frieze may be to liken the frieze to an artist’s model and Artin’s paintings to the artist’s rendering of that model.

The second series of paintings featured in the exhibition was commissioned for a limited-edition book, Stone from Delphi, which paired Seamus Heaney’s classically themed poems with sixteen of Artin’s watercolors of Greek and Roman sculptures. These paintings raise many of the same questions as the Parthenon frieze series while also inviting the viewer to reflect on the relation between word and image; just as Heaney’s poems reinterpret classical themes in a modern context, so Artin’s paintings may be understood as detailed visual commentaries on their subjects. The exhibition will feature a copy of the book and a selection of Heaney’s poems as well as Artin’s original paintings. 

Interspersed through the galleries will be objects from the Kelsey Museum’s collections that ring changes on similar themes of emulation, imitation, reproduction, and reinterpretation, including Greek sculptures modeled on Egyptian precedents, reproductions of famous figure types such as Aphrodite Rising from the Sea, and examples of Roman imperial portraits that were copied in numerous media for circulation around the empire. There will also be casts and photographs of some of Artin’s subjects, including the Parthenon frieze. This will be the first time that her paintings will have been exhibited in conjunction with a display of ancient artifacts. 

The exhibition will run in the Kelsey Museum’s Meader Gallery from June 5 through July 26, 2015. A second version of the show will be mounted in the Kelsey Lecture Hall from September 25 to October 25. The exhibition and related events will provide visitors of all ages and backgrounds—not just the typical visitors to an archaeology museum—with new and arresting ways of approaching the classical heritage.