Nefertiti’s Face by Joyce Tylesley tells the story of an artistic masterpiece of the ancient world, placing it in the longer history of reception and political intrigue.
The bust of Queen Nefertiti is star of Berlin’s Neues Museum. Placed in the centre of an almost empty room, it draws crowds who stare on in silent amazement. Unlike the tawdy crowds who jostle with their smart phones and Nintendo devices in front of the Mona Lisa Nerertiti still retains the regal power to silence her courtiers.
Nefertiti was King Akhenaten’s First Consort, reigning during a period of political and religious change which saw the worship of the Aten – the sun disk – become predominate over other Egyptian gods. Nefertiti’s iconography portrayed her with the large blue crown which is also seen in the bust. Several images show her, Akhenaten and their daughters receiving the Aten’s solar rays.
The bust was discovered just before the First World War in a German expedition in Amarna which is now shrouded in controversy. According to the laws of the day, all excavation finds were shared equally between the archaeologists (and their funders) and the Egyptian government. This system was called partage. Lefebvre, the French scholar, overseeing the dig for the Egyptian government, had overlooked the bust in his appraisal of the dig findings. It has been disputed since whether, Borchardt the lead archaeologist intentionally mislead him or not. Whether he did or not, it is notable that the bust was not put on public display for many years until 1924, when it proved an immediate draw. Egypt immediately requested a return of the bust.
Both Kaiser Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler were fans. A replica bust was amongst the Kaiser’s treasured personal possessions which he took with him to the Netherlands on abdication. Goering promised the bust to King Farouk of Egypt, as a sign of relations between the two countries but Hitler countenanced him.
Although regularly portrayed as a paragon of beauty, she has also been read as an icon of African history and black beauty, in particular. She is portrayed as a mature woman at the height of her powers, which is still rare.
Neferitit has gone on to inspire a whole new generation of artists, including Fred Wilson who placed five plaster busts of the Queen in various shades to raise awareness about the racial identity of Ancient Egyptians.
Perhaps most surprisingly, is her role as a disabled woman. The bust has only one iris and there is no evidence that this was any different in antiquity. This has raised questions about whether the queen suffered from an ophthalmic infection or sight disorder. Most modern replicas fill in the iris of the second eye. Should we do this? Certainly other images of the queen, show the iris but these are often heavily symbolic images of power. This particular aspect of the Queen, which is rarely touched upon, inspired the founders of the Nerfertiti Club, a group of handsome American women in the 1930s with sight impairments.
The Queen, who came to power during a time of change and displacement, now appears as an unchanging and unmoved paragon of an unknowable ancient wisdom. Yet, perhaps, her power comes from what she can tell us about ourselves today not least because of her perfection or the timelessness of the bust, but because of its imperfections and ambiguities which are what it means to be human in a world where identity is still socially constructed and fleeting.