Egyptomania Redux

bust of Egyptian Pharaoh Tuntankhamen

The word redux has its root in the Latin verb reducere meaning to lead back, something brought back, or a resurgence.

Southern California will soon be seeing a “resurgence” giving us a new chance to view some of the greatest artifacts of Ancient Egypt in a major exhibition entitled King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh.  The exhibit, the first of a 10-city world tour, will open in Los Angeles on March 24, 2018 at the California Science Center in Exposition Park and will be on view until early January 2019.

This exhibit will be the largest world tour ever, comprising 150 artifacts.  The previous tours had a limit of 50 objects.  Many of these King Tut treasures have never been seen outside of Egypt. It will be the last time to view these artifacts before their return to Egypt to be housed permanently in the new Egyptian Museum.  The purpose of the tour is to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922.

Featuring items owned and used by the “Boy King” (he is thought to have been 19 at the time of his death), the exhibit will include golden jewelry, carvings, sculptures and ritual artifacts. In addition, multimedia displays include how the scientific analysis of the 3000-year old mummy has revealed new information on his health and ancestry.  It also addresses how the latest in archaeology tools are aiding in the discovery of new tombs and in the analyzing of existing ones in new ways.

There have been several waves of Egyptian Revival throughout the last two centuries.  The discovery of the Rosetta Stone during Napoleon’s 1798-99 Egyptian campaign was the key to deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.  The publication of volumes in 1809 cataloging the sights and discoveries of the eventually ill-fated campaign ignited the creation of the field of Egyptology.  A second edition in 1830 elicited further interest in Egyptian art and culture.

Egyptian inspired chairs

Egyptian inspired buildings were erected in Paris during the decade after Napoleon’s campaign.  Ancient Egyptian art and architecture provided designers in France and England with a wide range of motifs.  Winged sun-disks, hawks and crocodiles were all incorporated into decorative arts and architecture.  An Egyptian dining room was created (1802-1806) at Goodwood House in Sussex for the Duke of Richmond.  It was the first interior in England that had its origin from the illustrations of ancient Egyptian monuments by the artist who had accompanied Napoleon to Egypt.  A number of motifs were applied architecturally and to the design of the furniture in the room.  The dining chairs had bronze crocodile figures inserted into their backs.

In America, Egyptian influence during these early years was primarily architectural.  Egyptian revival architecture in America can be seen in Benjamin Latrobe’s original design (not built) for the Library of Congress Room in the new Capitol (1808), the 4th Precinct Police Station in New Orleans (1836), The Tombs in New York City (1838), and the Washington Monument (1850) as well as in many other public and private buildings in cities and towns across America. There is a 3500-year old Egyptian obelisk, Cleopatra’s Needle, in New York City’s Central Park.  Egyptian themes, however, didn’t begin to be evident in the decorative arts until the end of the 19th century.

After the Civil War, Americans became interested in other cultures.  Designers and artists looked to Japan, the Middle East and Africa for new ideas.  Egyptian motifs were combined with more traditional western styles and the result incorporated details such as gilt-bronze sphinxes, textiles woven with Egyptian themes, geometric depictions of palm fronds, lotus blossoms and reeds.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Verdi’s 1871 opera Aida and continued archaeological discoveries, particularly the excavation at Tel El-Amarna in 1887, kept the public’s awareness and interest focused on Egypt.

Medallion with Egyptian Scarab motif

Egyptian symbols and images translated well into the decorative arts and this aesthetic found its way into jewelry and silver designs.  At the turn of the 20th century as the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles became popular, Egyptian motifs appeared in jewelry, textiles, wallpaper and other decorative arts, providing an exotic alternative to the conventional and traditional styles of the time.

Scholars refer to these periods as Egyptomania – an obsession with Egyptian antiquities and design.  However, there would not be another major one until the discovery of King Tut’s Tomb in 1922.  Egyptian motifs began to be seen everywhere in modern culture and became an essential element in Art Deco design and architecture, carrying on into the 1930’s and early 1940’s.

The phenomenon continued to grip the world fueled by the rumors of a curse related to the death of Lord Caernarvon, who had financed Carter’s search for the tomb.  According to Robert Nemeth, an English architectural historian and conservationist:

“The discovery was still in the early days for Art Deco which took its name from the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries held in Paris in 1925.  Designers of the time were enamored by the brilliant colors, angular shapes, hieroglyphics and mysterious symbols prevalent in ancient Egypt. These design features were incorporated into Art Deco furniture, art, clothing, jewelry and architecture.”

It will be interesting to see if the upcoming King Tut Exhibition will be the catalyst for a new wave of Egyptomania in design and the decorative arts.  As an appraiser, it is important for us to understand the forces in the marketplace that affect value.  An event like this may cause an increase in demand for items with these motifs.

SOURCES

Egyptian Revival. Sara Jakow, Institute of Fine Arts. N.Y., 2012

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Experience “King Tut: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh at California Science Center

Victoria and Albert Museum

Treasures of Tutankhamen. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibition Catalogue. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1976

Pinterest – Egyptian Revival Jewelry – 412 Images

Art Nouveau and Art Deco Jewelry, An Identification and Value Guide.  Lillian Baker. Collector Books. Paducah, Kentucky, 1981.

Gilt bronze figure of an Egyptian cat

Art Deco 1925-1940 …. Looking to the Future.

Radio with art deco streamlined styling.

The predominant motif in Art Deco design was the appearance of “Speed”. Streamlined sweeping curves based on aerodynamic principles – a symbol of forward movement.

The pessimism – some critics considered it decadence – that pervaded society at the end of the 19th century was replaced with a sense of optimism and excitement. People looked ahead to the new century witnessing the industrial progress that was giving them hope for an economic and social revival.

The term “Art Deco” derived from the 1925 Paris L’Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes. The purpose of the exhibition was to “unite art with industry”. The concept was to embody the ideas of this modern age with a complete break from the past. The work of designers was not to imitate earlier historical periods. They could, however, draw on ancient designs for inspiration, as long as the artisans adapted the designs in the modern style.

Gathering from diverse sources, we see motifs from Mayan and Aztec cultures; Egyptian themes that coincided with the discovery and worldwide interest in King Tut’s tomb, and interest in the striking patterns and colors inherent in African and Japanese art.

Walnut art deco dining table

The cost of fine handcrafted objects was out of the reach of many. Exotic woods, and other expensive materials made this new design form available only to the very wealthy. A need was created for production of machine-made objects in quantity, cost-efficient, modern looking and affordable to all; items that were not only functional, but beautiful in their simplicity.

Streamlined designs were applied to cars, trains, ships, and objects whose purpose was certainly not forward movement. Buildings, gas pumps, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, radios and gramophones, kitchen utensils, toasters, ceramics, pottery and glassware, clocks and wall sconces, and other everyday items all displayed this new form of design. Striking geometric patterns, bold and contrasting use of color, symmetry, lack of frills and of anything faintly romantic defined the style.

Art Deco concepts permeated all things in the 1920s and 1930s – architecture, fine art, cinema, graphics and advertising posters, and in fashion design for both men and women.

Bakelite and other new synthetic materials were particularly well-suited to the mass production of Art Deco jewelry. Now anyone regardless of their social position could afford the trendy and decorative pieces that were now available to all.

Sleek-looking metals, stainless steel, aluminum and chrome appeared in even the most common household items. The cocktail shaker became the symbol of fashionable sophistication in many middle-class homes. If you enjoy the “Thin Man” movies or any movie from the 1930’s, spot the cocktail service that was always present as part of the set decoration.

Walk into a home department at Macy’s, and you will most likely see a display of Fiesta Ware. Still popular with its simple, streamlined forms in brilliant colors, it was introduced by the Homer Laughlin China Co. of West Virginia in 1936.The line was noted for its Art Deco styling which featured concentric circles and a variety of bright colors and shapes. It was discontinued in 1972 due to changing tastes in dinnerware styles, but was reintroduced in 1984 with new glazes and colors. Popular again, Fiesta Ware is considered to be the most collected brand of china in the United States.

An organization devoted to the preservation of Art Deco in all its forms is the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles. They are sponsoring a festival aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California from August 18-20. It will be a weekend of total immersion in the Art Deco era. They are also planning their annual Avalon Ball in January in the Casino on Catalina Island. The Catalina Casino on Avalon Bay, built in 1929, is a remarkable example of Art Deco design. Information and many interesting articles on preservation as well as other topics and events can be found on their website.

The theme of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair – “A Century of Progress” sums up the underlying ideas of the period known as Art Deco:  Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts.

Art Deco survived into the early 1940’s when it evolved to mid-century modernism.

One of the most interesting assignments I’ve had was to appraise a large collection of Art Deco period furniture and posters for insurance purposes.   Identifying the exotic veneers was a challenge.

Sources

Definitive Guide to the Decorative Arts of the 1920s and 1930s. Alastair Duncan.

Harry N. Abrams New York, 2009.

Art Deco 1910-1939. Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton, Ghislaine Wood, Editors

V & A Publications. London, 2003. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Art Deco Society of Los Angeles. www.adsla.org

Art Deco. Young Mi Kim. Friedman/Fairfax. Architecture and Design Library

Art Nouveau and Art Deco Jewelry. Lillian Baker. Collector Books Paducah, Kentucky, 1981.

Websites

History of Art Deco. Bryan Mawr College. www. brynmawr.edu

Art Deco. The Art Story – Modern Art Insight. www.theartstory.org

Art Deco. Wikipedia.

Art Deco perfume bottle