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Egyptian Art: Selected Writings of Bernard V. Bothmer.

Egyptian Art: Selected Writings of Bernard V. Bothmer. By Bernard V. Bothmer, edited by Madeleine E. Cody. Oxford: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2004. Pp. xxii + 517, illus.

In the editorial preface to this homage to the contributions by Bernard V. Bothmer to the study of Egyptian art, James Romano states that the intent of its publication was "to emphasize his [Bothmer's] object-based methodology in contrast to current approaches that stress theoretical methodology over connoisseurship." In truth, Bothmer's primary contributions to the discipline were: 1) the establishment of demanding standards for the accurate description of works of Egyptian art and the coinage of a precise terminology to achieve it, and 2) the codification of rules developed by Hans Wolfgang Mueller for the photographic recording of such works of art. The refinement of these mechanisms was an achievement that earned for Bothmer a unique position as a pioneer in the history of Egyptology for his efforts to catalog, to bring order to, and to maintain control over a vast corpus of material produced over several millennia during the history of a culture dedicated to the production of sculpture, relief, and painting on a scale from minute to monumental. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge that the field of Egyptian art history lags woefully behind any other area of the study of art from a theoretical perspective and that, although historically significant, Bothmer's work is, as a product of its time, dated in terms of the interests of many current scholars.

Two essays introduce the articles of Bothmer collected in this elegant and lavishly produced book. The first and more lengthy of them is by T. G. H. James, former Keeper of the Egyptian Collection at the British Museum and an associate of Bothmer. The second is by Rita Freed, Norma-Jean Calderwood Curator of Ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and a former graduate student of Bothmer's when, toward the end of his life, he was named the first Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Egyptian Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. James' essay is an insider's biography of Bothmer written by one who, like Bothmer, lived through the era of pre-and post-Nazi Germany and who speaks, therefore, firsthand of the curtailments imposed during those times on artistic, scholarly, and personal freedom. It would be of great value if a history were to be written someday of the ways in which both World Wars affected the history of Egyptology as a science, but the sentiments in James' essay reference feelings that could be considered overly personal in nature, and his allusions to the gossip by and about long-dead museum staff members and unkind characterizations of noted scholars that are couched in terms of his opinion of what the late Bothmer's opinions might have been seem, within the context of this book, maladroit.

The essay by Freed has more of an objective tone, particularly noteworthy since those who studied with Bothmer seem to have been profoundly affected by him as witnessed by her admission that "to his students Bernard Bothmer was as much a strong parent as he was a charismatic teacher." James, who praises Bothmer as a teacher, notes that Freed epitomizes the Bothmer student, as she was one of those of the class Bothmer trained at NYU, which became "in due course the present generation of Egyptological art historians, many of whom occupy senior positions in America and elsewhere." Those senior positions one might observe, however, are not exclusively university professorships but curatorial posts like those Bothmer held for the major part of his life, and one can now only speculate how that will affect Bothmer's long-term influence on the future of Egyptian art history.

The thirty-one articles that form the body of this book cover topics that span the breadth of Egyptian history. Some are groundbreaking articles that document the most passionate interests of Bothmer and his mission to ensure that the art that was produced during the final years of ancient Egypt's lengthy history be accorded the scholarly attention and the value he felt it deserved. It was in fact Bothmer who literally defined the Late Period with the catalogue for an exhibition of the same title that he organized for the Brooklyn Museum in 1960, Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period: 750 B.C. to A.D. 100. No publication since has rivaled its near iconic status. Bothmer accomplished an equally effective paradigm shift for attitudes toward Amarna art with the 1973 exhibition, "Akhenaten and Nefertiti" and, in 1978, for the relationship between Egypt and Nubia with "Africa in Antiquity."

Although he had already been at work on the project since 1950, Bothmer announced in "A Note on the Corpus of Late Egyptian Sculpture" (JAOS 74 [1954]: 70) his intent to publish a catalog of a "complete census of all Egyptian stone sculpture from 750 B.C. to A.D. 200 [one hundred years more inclusive than the chronological range of the 1960 exhibition and catalogue], including a detailed archeological record with photography of the four sides of each piece." At that time he (optimistically yet unrealistically) projected "approximately six more years to complete the collection of extant material." In terms of Bothmer's scholarly legacy, the non-appearance of his envisioned opus is much to be regretted yet, fortunately, the vast corpus of material he did collect is available in archival form. Richard Fazzini, curator of the Department of Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Middle Eastern Art (and a former student of Bothmer) made available to the editors of this monograph the [+ or -]40,000 photographic images produced by Bothmer and placed by him in the archives at the Brooklyn Museum of Art so that over 450 photographs of exceptional quality complement the text.

The precise criteria for the selection of articles in this monograph, however, are not entirely clear. For example, one notes the omission of two articles in particular, "The Brooklyn Statuette of Hor, Son of Pawen (with an Excursus on Eggheads)," and, especially, in light of the importance of Bothmer's guidelines for the photography of Egyptian art, "On Photographing Egyptian Art." In any case, it is important to note that each of the articles included in this monograph has been previously published and is obtainable elsewhere. In a Parthian shot in the concluding paragraph of James' essay, the wider audience for this book is therefore disparaged as "those who cannot or will not exploit the easily available bibliographies," exhibiting a lack of motivation, James goes on to state, that Bothmer himself would never have understood. In fact, due to technological advances in the past decade since James' 1996 statement, a digital version of Bothmer's complete bibliography can be found online and all of Bothmer's articles that originally appeared in the Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (BMFA) (four of which are included in this monograph) are available at

This publication nevertheless allows us the convenient opportunity to reevaluate Bothmer's work in a new century. From among the articles that document not only Bothmer's brilliant insightfulness but also his tendency to present his opinions as fact, one might profitably examine either "On Realism in Egyptian Funerary Sculpture of the Old Kingdom" (chapter 25, pp. 371-93) or "Notes on the Mycerinus Triad" (chapter 2, pp. 11-24). To prepare the reader for his observations on the identification of traits of realism in Egyptian funerary sculpture Bothmer begins by asserting that "among the major arts associated with the funerary cults of ancient Egypt--sculpture, relief and painting--none gives us a deeper understanding of the inner personality of the Nile dwellers in antiquity than sculpture in the round." He then continues to extol the supremacy of sculpture as the medium for one to "explore man's humanity," to the detriment of all other art forms. Bothmer's opinion in this regard was so persuasive that it is reiterated still by his students, who regard sculpture as the ultimate expression of Egyptian art.

Undoubtedly, Bothmer's bias in this regard was formed under the influence of his formal education and training in the classical arts, according to which the human form is considered to be the ultimate expression of individualism. There are, however, alternative views to that which Bothmer put forth as dogma. Some Egyptologists who have a strong background in Egyptian language (the translation of all texts for the Corpus of Late Egyptian Sculpture was exclusively the work of Herman De Meulenaere, not Bothmer) tend to see a more convincing and complementary relationship between literary and visual means of representation; others see an intimate physical relation between writing and drawing. In any case, the reader quickly discerns that this article was not so much about realism in Old Kingdom funerary sculpture in general, and this not simply because it is an excerpt from what was originally a longer paper, but its focus is the analysis of one genre of funerary sculpture: statues of bound prisoners that were set up at royal funerary complexes.

It is a testament to Bothmer's understanding of the evolution of Egyptian art and culture that he began his discussion with examples from the Third Dynasty complex of Zoser, since historians who have traditionally begun the Old Kingdom with Dynasty Four now credit the Third Dynasty with many of the achievements Bothmer had noted two decades ago (see Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids [New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999]).

For one unfamiliar with the man himself, Bothmer's description of the bound prisoner statues is surprisingly empathic, not the distanced, technical analysis one might expect. He eloquently describes the facial expressions of these statues as expressing emotions that "range from glum stupor to anguished despair, from tense resignation to silent suffering and serenity." But are such intense feelings actually portrayed on faces that appear, to the average viewer, as generically bland and on heads that Bothmer admits are attached to bodies that, although kneeling and "cruelly tied," show no sign of torture? For one example, Bothmer explains that although "the distortion of its features gives it an amused expression, this convivial look was meant to mirror extreme pain." He goes on to add that, "[t]o this day there are people who as a sign of great agony involuntarily look amused." These extraordinary statements notwithstanding, Bothmer's contribution to the study of these sculptures is not his insightful characterizations of them as individuals, but his observation that, as a genre, they should be defined as documents of human suffering. Such a characterization, if it had been carried further, would define this genre as the expression of the Egyptian concept of the enemy who submits to an inevitable fate (a motif known from as early as Hierakonpolis Tomb 100 and the Narmer Palette), although one could disagree with Bothmer that it "establishes for eternity not only the pain felt by the defeated, but also the compassion felt by the one who created the statue." In this case, Bothmer's empathy for the doomed captives extends to project sympathy on the part of the Egyptian captor/victor and for this we have no contemporary visual or textual corroboration.

In "Notes on the Mycerinus Triad," Bothmer reexamined, in 1950, a masterpiece of Fourth Dynasty sculpture and one of the treasures of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bothmer's description of the sculpture is meticulously detailed; he informs us of facts that are no longer evident about the piece, such as that upon its discovery evidence of polychromy was preserved on its surface. He maintains the same tone as in relating that fact however, when he presents what might better have been expressed as opinion when describing the artist's mastery of anatomical form, which he sees evidenced in the torsos of the triad figures. What he categorically describes as the "rendering of flesh and blood in true proportions" is betrayed at a glance by the studied perfection and conscious arrangement of anatomical elements that presents, to this viewer, idealized images that are more the result of cognitive choices than the careful observation of nature. Bothmer's premise is that this statue group illustrates the significance of pose, costume, and attributes in Egyptian art, and he persuasively presents evidence of these details in order to arrive at a thorough appreciation of the work. Toward the end of the article, however, Bothmer seems to carry his search for the meaning of the sculpture beyond what is necessary to prove his point. He quotes an oft-repeated statement by Gaston Maspero to the effect that deities were represented in the visual arts with the features of ruling kings. In such cases, art historians would do well to heed the advice of Yogi Berra, whose remark, "You can see a lot by looking," reminds us all to question just such sweeping generalizations.

Careful scrutiny of this group rewards a viewer with many observable differences in the facial features of Hathor and the king (differences can as well be discerned in the facial features of the dyad of Mycerinus and a queen [BMFA 11.1738], which have also been traditionally likened). Bothmer's final conclusion, however, proposes a strained synchrony between the figures of the deity and the king in the Boston triad, involving an imaginary line of sight that, according to Bothmer, explicates the sculpture's meaning which is "the identity of man with god, the presence of the deity in man and the divine sanction of Egyptian kingship." One ought immediately to question critically, however, why artists who had already produced a brilliant solution to synthesizing this idea in stone (e.g., the seated statue of Chephren [Cairo, JE10062/CG 14]) would still have been struggling a generation later to convey the concept in more elusive and enigmatic terms, decipherable only through such an excruciating, mathematical process.

As a chronicle of the life's work of a brilliant and singular mind that influenced the history of the history of the study of Egyptian art, and as a collection of some of the most visually stunning images of Egyptian art ever made, this compendium of selected writings by Bernard V. Bothmer makes a thought-provoking addition to any library.


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Author:Corcoran, Lorelei H.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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