Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Icons and sirens: Egyptian femmes fatales

As if all the above were not enough, the Amarna period has yielded one particular artistic icon that somehow manages to combine the sexual attraction of Marilyn Monroe with the deadly controversy of the Elgin Marbles, and perhaps a little added spice of racism and fascism. This is of course the bust of Nefertiti.

The German excavator Ludwig Borchardt discovered the famous painted limestone bust of Nefertiti in 1912, in the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose, whose house was one of the large sprawling villas in the southern part of the city at Amarna. The sculpture – probably intended as a sculptor’s model rather than a finished piece in itself – is about 50 cm high and fantastically well preserved, its only flaw being the absence of the right eye (although remarkably this does not particularly impair its overall beauty). The circumstances by which the bust ended up in the Berlin museum, however, have been a source of heated debate ever since. According to Nicholas Reeves,

At the formal division of spoils a mere month after the discovery, the Nefertiti bust passed to Dr James Simon, the sponsor of the German excavations. In 1920 Simon made a formal gift of his collection to the state of Prussia; three years after that, the queen was unveiled to an astonished public – an event closely followed by outraged complaints from the Egyptian Government that the queen’s portrait had left Egypt under irregular circumstances. Accusations flew and solutions were proposed in an attempt to resolve this unhappy situation – but to no avail . . .

If the bust arrived in Europe amid controversy, the situation if anything became worse by the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler himself declared that it was his favourite work of art from Egypt, and would therefore remain in Germany.

The link with Hitler is perhaps no accident, since one of the other controversial aspects of the sculpture is the fact that it has such characteristically European, rather than African facial characteristics. This has meant that, for many Afrocentrists, it symbolizes traditional Egyptologists’ supposed determination to present Egyptian culture as non-African and non-black. In the catalogue of the polemical exhibition ‘Egypt in Africa’ in 1996, Asa G. Hilliard III, Professor of Education at Georgia State University, argued,

This exhibit is one of the first to select items that show more typical African phenotypes rather than the atypical and sometimes foreign images that most Europeans like to see, e.g. Nefertiti, the Sheik el Bilad, or Kai the scribe, those ambiguous enough to be regarded as ‘white’.

The bust seems to belong to the later part of the Amarna period, when the new artistic style had settled down, and become much less extreme. In the eyes of some observers it is the most aesthetically pleasing image of a woman’s face ever produced. In an attempt to analyse why this should be the case, Jaromir Malek suggests that

Much of the attraction of the piece stems from its perfect, almost geometrical, regularity which is so appealing to our modern eyes: long straight lines predominate, most conspicuously those connecting the front of the crown and the queen’s forehead on profile, and the side of the crown and her cheeks on front view.

Even by the standards of 18th-Dynasty royal women, such as Ahhotep I and Hatshepsut, the real historical Nefertiti, principal wife of Akhenaten, seems to have achieved unusual power and influence, perhaps building on the achievements of her influential mother-in-law (and perhaps also aunt) Queen Tiye. Camille Paglia paints a lurid Lady-Macbeth-like portrait of Nefertiti:

The proper response to the Nefertiti bust is fear. The queen is an android, a manufactured being. She is a new gorgoneion, a ‘bodiless head of fright’ . . . Art shows Akhenaten half-feminine, his limbs shrunken and belly bulging, possibly from birth defect or disease. This portrait shows his queen half-masculine, a vampire of political will.

Whether we agree with Paglia’s characteristically over-the-top description or not, it shows the continuing power of this bust – and by extension, Nefertiti herself – to evoke passionate responses. There can be few sculptures that are so closely identified with the individual depicted that commentators discuss the bust as if it were in some sense the actual woman, which is after all a very characteristically ancient Egyptian position to take.

The way in which the statue itself is regarded almost as a sacred relic was demonstrated in 2003, when two artists (‘Little Warsaw’) effectively ‘restored’ the whole sculpture, creating a body to support the bust, as part of the Hungarian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. In the end, the head was not allowed to travel to Venice to be displayed along with the body, but a curiously evocative photograph was taken, showing the old head and new body joined together and standing upright beside the empty display case in Berlin (as if Nefertiti had come through time to visit her own bust but found it missing). This was a powerful artistic image, but on a museological and Egyptological level it was considered inappropriate to treat the object in this cavalier way, and relations between the Berlin Egyptian Museum and the Supreme Council for Antiquities in Cairo were again somewhat soured – the original plan to display both head and body together in Venice was abandoned. In the booklet accompanying the display of The Body of Nefertiti, the artists point out that,

It became evident that Nefertiti had been studied to death by Egyptologists: the only way to revive her seemed to be by replanting her into the context of contemporary art.

They also have something to say on the racial debate:

This statue is one of the important sources of European cultural history and sculpture, even though it was created outside the continent. Its outsider position adds further meanings to the project of completing: this 3000 year old model of beauty has been contributing, ever since it was found and put on public display, to the European ideal of beauty, even though it is both culturally and historically non-European.

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