2022 has been a year of important anniversaries in Egyptology, amongst other things.
The decipherment of hieroglyphs in 1822 and the discovery of Tutankthamun’s tomb in 1922 still set the standard narrative for the field, so it might come as some surprise that Egypt has caught the world’s imagination for centuries.
A new exhibition in the Sainsbury Centre at Norwich aims to retell the story of the enduring legacy of ancient Egypt.
The big hitters are all here:
- Cleopatra, who some claim started the fashion for Egyptian styles and gods in late Republican Rome, although she followed in the train of earlier Egyptian merchants.
- Hermes Tresmegistus, the Hellenised form of Thot, considered so important in the Renaissance that the first full Latin translation of Plato was paused to rush through a translation of Hermetic texts.
- The early modern Wunderkammers, replete with animal mummies from the animal necropolises, which were conveniently located near to the main entreports for foreign merchants and mummified animals were easy to transport) and small Egyptian objects to match the assorted objects.
- Piranesi’s magnificent designs for Egyptian style fireplaces, which are surely still the high point of Western ‘Egyptomania’.
- Edward’s Poynter’s Israel in Egypt, coming across it in the exhibition was akin to the experience of meeting someone in person after years of meeting online. A very 2022 experience. It is almost photographically detailed (if not totally accurate as Stephanie Moser has shown in Painting Antiquity), Poynter may have been influenced by the subject due to the popularity of Handel’s arias in the Crystal Palace.
The organizers move away from the term ‘Egyptomania:
“A shortcoming of ‘Egyptomania’ is that it is often used indiscriminately to describe all of the periods when artistic interest in Egypt surged … ‘Mania’ also suggests the phenomenon swept all corners of society, but before the late nineteenth century the ‘Egyptian style’ was limited.”
This is a fair comment, but it is still a very useful term in the sense that more people understand it than terms like ‘Egyptianising’, ‘Egyptian style’ or ‘Egyptian Revival’. Nevertheless it gets at something important at the heart of the enduring legacy of Egypt: much of it took place within geo-political contexts that informed the transmission in varied ways.
For example, the decipherment of hieroglyphs took place within Europe thanks in part to institutional support funded by colonialism and using items taken from Egypt by Imperial powers, not least the Rosetta Stone taken as war booty from the French following defeat. The discovery of Tutankhamun was made in the year that Egypt gained partial independence from Britain (an anniversary less marked in Britain than it should be).
While we can admire the art, we must always be conscious of the contexts in which it was produced. The beautiful Canopic style ceramics and teapots produced by Wedgewood at Etruria, were designed and sold during a period of British triumphalism over the French and expansion in Africa. This does not mean that Wedgewood was a supporter of Empire, but we must be alert to the unconscious messages transmitted by such works of art.
By the nineteenth century, Egypt was often viewed by Europeans through an ‘oriental’ gaze, yet one that surely unsettled their complacency. In the words of Shelley, “look on my works ye mighty and despair”.
An important point is made by Dana Arnold who argues that ancient Egypt ‘disrupted’ Europeans’ ideas about their past and their identities and a growing association between Europe and a ‘classical’ past:
Egypt offered a new past – a different ‘foreign country’ to be explored, both metaphorically and physically“
It is refreshing to see works by contemporary Egyptian artists. In particular Maha Maamoun’s video work Domestic Tourism II is a powerful study of the Pyramids in Egyptian art:
“my starting point was the representation of the pyramids in Egyptian cinema. My interest in the pyramids actually started when I realised how weird it is, though we see them all the time without really being conscious of them, to have these huge minimalist structures overlooking a city as labyrinthine and complex as Cairo. And also how strange it is to have these icons so physically close to the city but in touristic representations banished from the present time and place, shown mostly with the endless desert as their background and referring only to ancient Egyptian civilisation.”
The ways that people have understood, engaged and delighted in ancient Egypt and its culture has changed and will continue to change. This exhibition gives us a chance to pause, reflect and celebrate this rich legacy from the vantage point of an important year.