Acclaimed artist Pablo Bronstein has produced a stunning work of art to support an important London Gallery that champions the work of contemporary artists. Festival Cart in the Egyptian Taste is a work of art that draws on and celebrates the enduring legacy of Greco-Roman Egypt.
Pablo’s profound good taste and knowledge of Egyptomania, combined with his immense artistic talent, has produced a work of art that can be read on many levels. The watercolour depicts a rococo chariot carrying items in the Egyptian style which characterised ancient Roman engagement and reception with the mysterious land of the pharaohs.
At the front of the chariot stands a Sphinx in the early orientalising style initially popular in Greece. The influence of Egyptian styles at this formative period for Greek art meant that the Sphinx was thoroughly domesticated and remained “Other”. The Sphinx in the myth of Oedipus is a disruptive figure. Sphinxes were also part of Roman Street Furniture; an avenue of sphinxes stood in front of the main Iseum in Pompeii.
Next the carriage carries an obelisk covered in hieroglyphs. Rome was full of obelisks. Eight survive to the present day. They were war booty and although they were unlikely to be carried in triumphs due to their weight, they were part of the same visual culture of conquest. A phallic symbol, the obelisk is circled by a snake which is a symbol of both sin and sensuality in Western art. The snake is also an enduring symbol of this period of Egypt’s history following Plutarch’s depiction of Cleopatra’s death: “Don’t you see my baby suckling at my breast so that its nurse will fall asleep?” to quote someone.
The ibises resemble the ibises found on the painting of the Iseum at Herculaneum. Some historians have seen this painting as evidence for temple animals in Italy. As Iain Ferris has written birds were popular pets in the Roman period (although possibly not in Pompeii). The Ibis was the animal of Thoth, who remained popular up to the Renaissance in the figure of Hermes Trismegistus.
The carriage holds a pyramid. The Egyptian symbol par excellence, they enjoyed a vogue in Augustan Rome. The Piramide di Caio Cestio dates from this period and may reference the steeper pyramids found in Meroë (Sudan).
The carriage also carries palm trees. The Romans loved exotica and gardens, especially when they could be combined. At Pompeii, several images of Egypt have survived. Called Nilotic landscapes, the images depict Egypt in the flood period. They were often placed in gardens which also contained exotic plants and water features. According to Cicero the libraries of rich Romans looked out onto gardens. The collection of books linked to the collection of plants in an ancient version of what Bourdieu would call Cultural Capital.
Palm trees on a carriage? The Roman general Pompey the Great carried plants in a triumph. A symbol of the conquest of a land, the discovery of the new and valuable and luxury goods in their own right.
The cart ends with a mummy. Romans were very much aware of mummies. They were as fascinated in them as people are today. In addition, stylised vases of Osiris as a mummy were carried in processions. A memento mori but also a hint of the immortality that all great art aims at and which Pablo, himself, is promised.
The Festival Cart of Isis
Although high fantasia, this is a depiction of the Isis processions described by Apuleius led by women dressed in white and strewn in flowers, carrying mirrors and lights. Just out of shot would be the joyous anubiacs, the priests in the mask of Anubis and his train.
In its tastefully muted palette, the painting depicts the splendour of the Egyptomania. The lightness of touch embodies the festivity of the parades, whilst the shadow hints at darker undertones.
Pablo’s work reminds us of the debt that Western art owes to Africa. Much of classical art was inspired directly and indirectly by Egyptian and Mesopotamian culture.
Pablo is one of the finest contemporary artists working today. One hopes that Festival Cart in the Egyptian Taste is a precursor for a deeper examination of the enduring legacy of Greco-Roman Egyptian in contemporary life.
Festival Cart in the Egyptian Taste has been donated to raise money for Studio Voltaire. Pablo Bronstein is a trustee of the gallery which champions emerging and underrepresented artists.
If you can, buy it now and support a great cause. For everyone else here’s hoping Studio Voltaire release it as a print or commision Pablo to explore the theme in more detail.