Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"That's how people grow up"

Growing up, ancient Egypt was, as I am sure it was to many people, about as wonderful and distant as it got. I kept my interest in ancient cultures and, as it turned out, studied classics (with an emphasis on ancient Rome) in college. I ended up going for a J.D. rather than a Ph.D., but I'd be kidding myself if I said that the culture of the ancient world didn't have a major influence on me.

So, I too respond with disbelief when I heard that the legendary bust of Akhenaten's wife, Nefertiti (who may have been Neferneferuaten and Smenkhkare, but that's another story), has been called a modern fake.

I haven't read Mr. Stierlin's book, which would answer my questions, but I'd like to talk to an expert about what this revelation does to our understanding of New Kingdom art in general, with specific reference to the Amarna period. We've got plenty of art from that time, but that bust of one woman is probably better known than any number of friezes and stelae from that period. It is also the second most recognizable symbol of ancient Egypt, at least in a non-architectural sense (though I'd say, even if you include the Great Pyramid and the Great Sphinx, she'd still come in no lower than fourth). On some level, then, it would be a bit upsetting to see it exposed as a fake -- a European fake, no less.

On the other hand, who cares?

The bust is beautiful. From the slightly enigmatic expression to the proportion and balance of the features, the sculpture has considerable charm. Even the missing eye adds something to it. At some point, the provenance of such a work ceases to matter too much, even if a reevaluation obliterates the meaning the viewer gives the work. Would ancient Egypt have held the same charm for me as a little shaver if I'd known that this work was a fake? Probably. Would I have chosen classics for my undergraduate major? Probably. So what difference does this revelation make? Not much.

Though we probably should reevaluate the sculptor.


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