Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art, 1730-1930

By Curran, Brian A. | The Art Bulletin, December 1996 | Go to article overview

Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art, 1730-1930

Curran, Brian A., The Art Bulletin

"Egyptomania" is the term that, for better or worse, has come to define the recurring fascination with ancient Egypt in Western European art and culture. The origin of the term, with its intimations of the irrational and popular dimensions of Egypt's peculiar appeal, remains somewhat obscure. In the early 19th century, the architect Sir John Soane decried what he called an "Egyptian mania" in the visual and decorative arts of his day, inspired by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 and the subsequent British intervention in the region.' The concept of "Egyptomania" was kept in circulation during the 19th and early 20th centuries by classical scholars concerned with the popularity of the Egyptian religion (and Egyptianizing art) during the time of the Roman Empire, and it began to be applied to the Renaissance revival of Hermeticism and "hieroglyphics" during the 1950s.2 Until recently, however, art historians writing in English were content to speak in terms of an "Egyptian Revival" or an "Egyptian Taste" when referring to the use of Egyptian motifs and subject matter by Western artists.3 During the last fifteen years, however, this more restrained terminology has been overwhelmed by the sheer momentum and broad appeal of the Egyptomania concept. The turning point seems to have come in the late 1970s, when the exhibition "The Treasures of Tutankhamen" traveled across the country on a whirlwind of publicity that inspired an "Egyptian" craze in movies, television shows, mystery novels, and trinkets of every kind and description. During this period of "Tut-mania," the Egypt-oriented consumer could conceivably wake up in the morning to the strains of Steve Martin's King

Tut song, apply "King Tut" cologne after shaving, go downstairs for a cup of "King Tut" tea, and proceed downtown to the shopping district (and the local museum shop) where still more Tutankhamen products (books, catalogues, T-shirts, posters,jewelry, stationery, whiskey decanters, etc.) could be purchased. The parallel with another renowned dead king of the period, Elvis Presley, of Memphis, Tennessee, is remarkable indeed. When the Tutankhamen exhibition came to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the museum mounted an exhibition of Egypt-inspired artifacts under the title "Egyptomania."4 This show, along with a number of more recent exhibitions, emphasized the popular appeal of ancient Egypt by focusing on advertising art, movie posters, cigar boxes, political cartoons, and other mass-media manifestations of Egyptian imagery.5

The concept of Egyptomania also benefited from the wave of interest in "Orientalist" art that emerged in the wake of the publication in 1978 of Edward Said's influential study of European conceptions of the Islamic world.6 A number of the most important Orientalist painters of the l9th century, including David Roberts, Jean-Leon Gerome, and William Holman Hunt, had produced works in which the attraction of ancient Egypt merges subtly with the "lure of the Orient." Orientalist and "Egyptological" attitudes toward Egypt were treated together (and in a synthetic way) in an exhibition held in Brighton and Manchester in 1983, while the relationship between Orientalism and the Western reception of pharaonic Egypt and the civilizations of the Ancient Near East was among the Orientalist themes treated in an ambitious exhibition, "Europe and the Orient," held in Berlin in 1989.7 Just this year, an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, explored the "lure of Egypt" from a primarily Orientalist perspective.8

It is curious, therefore, to note that for the organizers of the biggest-ever exhibition on the subject of Egyptomania, Orientalism is something which, if not entirely avoidable, is definitely an element to be minimized in favor of the more antiquarian aspects of their subject. For Marcel Humbert and Christiane Ziegler of the Musee du Louvre and Michael Pantazzi of the National Gallery of Canada, the organizers of the "Egyptomania" exhibition held in Paris, Ottawa, and Vienna in 1994-95 and the authors of its sumptuous catalogue, Egyptomania is first and foremost a matter of the creative response of Western artists toward ancient Egyptian art and culture.

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