Ancient And Modern 'Body Worlds' in Description de l'Égypte

Ancient And Modern 'Body Worlds' in Description de l'Égypte

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

5:30 PM–7:00 PM
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In this Research and Academic Program lecture, Kathryn Howley (Institute of Fine Arts, NYU / Beinecke Fellow) argues that the bodily preoccupation of ancient Egyptian art is one reason why it has proven unusually appealing to modern audiences, ever since the beginnings of modern Egyptology in Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798. Ancient Egyptian art is full of bodies, a fact not lost on modern Western audiences who have long delighted in mummies and reliefs of kings “walking like an Egyptian.” By analyzing the original sketches made by members of Napoleon's expedition as well as the resulting engravings published in the monumental book Description de l’Égypte, this lecture demonstrates that although scholars were drawn to the proliferation of bodies in Egyptian art, they distorted unfamiliar Egyptian proportions into something akin to the Greco-Roman ideal, which were acceptable to European eyes. This distortion transformed Western narratives of ancient Egyptian art from a “monstrous curiosity” into a prestigious developmental step in the Western canon of civilization, thus implicating ancient Egypt in a racial narrative that persists in Egyptology to the present day.

Kathryn Howley is the Lila Acheson Wallace Assistant Professor of Ancient Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University. She is particularly interested in the material culture of intercultural interaction and identity, which she explores through her fieldwork project at the Amun Temple of King Taharqo at Sanam in Sudan. At the Clark, she is working on a book manuscript that argues that the proliferation of bodies in ancient Egyptian imagery is central to how the proliferation has functioned upon its audience, both ancient and modern; the manuscript also explores the ways in which modern body politics have influenced the understanding of ancient Egyptian art.  

Presented in person in the Clark auditorium. Free, with a reception in the Manton Research Center's Reading Room starting at 5 pm. A recorded video of this lecture releases on the Clark's Youtube channel on April 11.

Image: Detail of frontispiece to the second edition of Description de l'Égypte, 1825.