Understanding Distant Cultures
The Case of Egypt
The attempts made in European thought in the course of the late nineteenth century to understand the nature of primitive art and to come to terms with the riddle of prehistoric painting and sculpture were, as we have shown, often, linked with the study of another subject, early or exotic “high civilizations.”In our own day we think we are fully aware of the profound difference between a genuinely primitive and a highly developed, if exotic, art. Even today, however, the dividing line between the two is not always easily drawn; in the nineteenth century, as today, people were aware that there is an essential difference between the primitive and the exotic, but the areas of equivocation were larger and more frequently encountered than in the late twentieth. The blurring of distinctions between the primitive and the exotic was abetted by a certain conceptual smoke. As there were no ready-made notions for the study of primitive art, it seemed natural to look for what one could learn from the exotic, and apply this to the analysis of the primitive and the prehistoric.
The range of exotic cultures thus linked with the primitive was not well defined. Anthropology, rapidly expanding in the latter part of the nineteenth century, offered many illustrations that proved difficult to label and to classify as either “primitive” or “exotic.” Does a Peruvian idol, to mention an example actually adduced, belong to a high, if distant, civilization, or is it a work of genuinely primitive art? It was compared, on the one hand, with Egyptian figures, and, on the other, with children's drawings.1
The art of two areas of very ancient or distant cultures played a particularly important part in the aesthetic reflections of the late nineteenth century. One was the art and civilization of ancient Egypt which, at least at that time, seemed removed not only by millennia, but somehow to belong to a different mythical age. The other was the art of the Far East, mainly China and Japan, but also to some extent India. These arts were not primitive in the sense of the word then accepted. But they were different enough from