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