Egypt and Nubia, Volume III: Approach of the Simoon-Desert at Gizeh, 1849. Louis Haghe (British, 1806–1885) after David Roberts (British, 1796–1864). Color lithograph; 43.6 x 60.4 cm (17 1/8 x 23 3/4 inches). Bequest of John Bonebrake 2012.263.
When Napoleon arrived in Egypt in 1798, the Great Sphinx of Giza was buried up to its neck in sand; it's the largest and oldest known monumental sculpture on earth, believed to have been built more than 4,500 years ago during the Old Kingdom. Despite its erosion and decay, it remains one of the most majestic examples of the triumph of the will. And within this grandeur, it retains its mystery. So much has been lost to history. And in this way, its rediscovery by the West imbued it with new life, as Napoleon charted a return to Africa by the ruling class and the bourgeois alike.
Artists, writers, and travelers decamped to Egypt for up close and personal encounters with the remains of an ancient civilization. They documented these experiences in art, story, and verse, ushering in a wave of curiosity about Biblical lands of the past. The British saw an opportunity to organize commerce and tourism and began creating an infrastructure in Egypt to support these industries. Romantic images of the past were created and distributed en masse, as great stylists introduced a new wave of Romanticism to Western art. Images of the Near East came into vogue, as a sensuous, tropical vibe combined with the glorious ruins of the pharaohs.
But as time has passed, our experience has changed, and the foreign has become familiar to us once more. Pyramids & Sphinxes, currently on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art through May 24, 2016, explores the complexities of the relationship between history, commerce, technology, and art. Curator Barbara Tannenbaum explains, "I wanted to show how things change through our exposure to photography."
The exhibition opens with dramatic paintings and drawings made before the advent of photography. Works by Louis Haghe and John Frederick Lewis return us to an earlier age, one filled with majesty and mystery, inviting the imagination to dream. As photography was introduced, it sought to replace these earlier works. And for a long time they did, until they came to stand for the thing itself, taking away the shock and awe that the pyramids and sphinx possessed before the age of photography.
Tannenbaum observes, "A lot of nineteenth-century photography was made for armchair travelers, for people in England to feel as though they knew the Holy Land. Commercial studios began to produce photographs that the middle class could buy while in Egypt, and send home as proof that they had been there. The photography lead to tourism, and it allowed people to believe they would know and understand what they were going to see. The photograph became a commercial tool to say, 'This land is there for us.'"
But everything cuts two ways, and familiarity kills the mystique. And as time went on, the mystery of ancient Egypt faded away from popular consciousness and became integrated into a much more ordinary way of life. The pyramids and sphinx have become co-opted to the point of becoming a backdrop to the commercial endeavors that have restored them to public consciousness.
Tannebaum observes, "A century and a half of photography has come along and changed how we respond to these things. They were once shocking and terrifying. But they can never be that for us. We can never un-see the photographs."
Wrestling with this progression, Tannenbaum looks to contemporary photography to explore the new course of Western depictions of Egyptian iconography. She selected works by Duane Michals, Richard Misrach, Ruth Thorne-Tomsen, Alex Webb, Lynn Davis, and Paul Maurer, revealing a broader array of responses to the familiar tropes, showing the ways in which we continue to engage with and re-examine our understanding of cultures that are not our own.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.