Faces from the Past, for the Future

By Andreae, Christopher | The Christian Science Monitor, February 5, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Faces from the Past, for the Future


Andreae, Christopher, The Christian Science Monitor


The Mysterious Fayum Portraits:

Faces From Ancient Egypt

by Euphrosyne Doxiadis

Harry N. Abrams, 247 pp., $35

Scattered around the world's museums - and usually accompanied by surprisingly scant explanation - are some portrait paintings of ancient origin.

They immediately strike you as so lifelike, in such bright condition, and so vigorously painted that you have to doubt their great age.

They also have an apparent spontaneity and directness of touch, as if painted at considerable speed.

We tend to think of such bold immediacy as belonging to our own period, rather than to that of Egypt, Greece, or Rome. But these particular representations (which are mummy portraits) - like some of the marvelous wall-paintings of Pompeii or Herculaneum - prove how wrong we can be.

In fact, they were painted during the first three centuries AD in Egypt at the time of the Roman Empire, and are either by Greek painters or painters trained in the traditions and stunningly convincing realism of Greek portraiture.

Suspicions regarding their authenticity were sometimes voiced when they started to appear in Europe and the United States from the 1880s on. Many of these portraits have little or no provenance, because those who found them were lax about documenting their discoveries. Some of the archaeologists were, however, scrupulous in such matters, which must have helped suspicions about their genuineness to disappear.

Nevertheless, they have still, according to the modern Greek artist Euphrosyne Doxiadis, "been consistently neglected by historians and critics and are virtually unknown to the general public."

There may be some exaggeration in this statement since her new book, "The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt," contains a sizable bibliography, and she herself admits in her text that she approached this corpus of portraits with "humility" because she was a painter rather than a scholarly art historian or archaeologist. In the event, however, she has produced a study of academic distinction as well as aesthetic judgement.

It may also be that more of the "general public" are aware of these portraits than she realizes. One of the most popular general art history books, E.H. Gombrich's "The Story of Art," illustrates and describes one of them. Other widely selling guides also do not fail to include them.

The Fayum portraits (named after the region in Egypt where most of them were found, preserved in the hot dry sand) are irresistible, and quite different from virtually any other known portrait paintings. They are unpretentious yet, in a number of instances, masterly examples of strong, knowing, practiced painting.

Professor Gombrich observes that they "still astonish us by their vigour and realism. There are few works of ancient art which look so fresh and 'modern' as these."

Clearly much research into this subject is still needed, particularly with regard to a precise understanding of technique and materials. But this book provides a thorough-going clarification of the portraits' purpose, social context, historical context, and geographical origin.

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