The Gods and Their Makers, 1878 (oil on canvas), Long, Edwin Longsden (1829-91) / © Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnley, Lancashire / The Bridgeman Art Library

The Gods and Their Makers

Today’s post is by Michelle from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are not experts, but we are people with a passionate interest in the museum and its objects. We each bring our own insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum.

One of the most eye-catching exhibits in Manchester Museum’s Gifts for the Gods – Animal Mummies Revealed is the magnificent 1878 orientalist masterpiece The Gods and their Makers by Edwin Long, on loan from Towneley Hall, Burnley, measuring an impressive 142 x 224 cm.

image
The Gods and Their Makers, 1878 (oil on canvas), Long, Edwin Longsden (1829-91) / © Towneley Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Burnley, Lancashire / The Bridgeman Art Library

Long’s oil on canvas captures an essence of Ancient Egypt that is representative of the way that Egypt was imagined in late 19th century Europe; an exotic and beautiful image that has found perpetuity, especially in film and popular culture. So much so that ancient Egypt monopolises a considerably large corner of today’s fiction and fantasy market; the mythologised pop image of Katy Perry in her Dark Horse music video supports a collective social consciousness of what is essentialised and understood as ‘Ancient Egypt’. It is perhaps not a surprise then that a Google search for ‘Cleopatra’ is dominated by ‘orientalised’ images of Elizabeth Taylor as a seductive temptress, rather than archaeological depictions of the Ptolemaic ruler.

Cleopatra

The Orient contrasts with the Occident, as the rising sun contrasts with the setting sun, and although there is not an intrinsic idea of place within the words, European usage effectively fixed the Orient geographically. ‘Orientalism’ therefore became the romanticised idea of Egypt and the Middle East, and was one of the new styles of “academic art” that rose to prominence in the 19th century.

Exactly one hundred years after Long painted The Gods and their Makers, in 1978 Edward Said published his seminal work, Orientalism, which challenged the ways that the Middle East has been perceived and portrayed by the West, and has forever changed how cultures are examined, defined and described.

Orientalism
“Orientalism” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Edward Wadie Said, a Palestinian born American citizen, was a historian and cultural critic whose early life was characterised by a lack of a feeling of place that was to pervade his future work. He was also influenced by contemporary theorist such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault who were writing about the social and political construction of difference. Although not without its errors or critics, Said’s Orientalism has become a founding document for postcolonial studies, influencing literary theorists including Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

The imaginary and static representation of Eastern cultures by the West is not confined to colonial history, but dates from ancient times to the modern day.

Over two millennia ago, Greek tragedician Aeschylus constructed the Persians as a subalternate ‘Other’ to the civilisation of the Greeks. And Ridley Scott’s 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings demonstrates the how the film industry of the West retains a position of power when representing ancient Egypt. Exodus… was condemned for ‘whitewashing’ its leading roles and its presentation of aspects of Egyptian history, over 1,000 years apart, as a simultaneous and static past that can be studied, depicted and reproduced, by a Western society that is developed, rational, flexible and superior.

Exodus2014Poster
“Exodus2014Poster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Cultural theories do not make Edwin Long’s painting less beautiful; it is remarkable even in the most minute details – the reflections from the jewellery, the fall of the cloth, down to the animation of the little cats in the corner. What these ideas bring is context; a glimpse with a critical eye beyond the paint into the world in which it was created, built upon ideologies dating back to the 5th century BC.

As a final thought, back in 1980 Edward Said wrote,

“So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab–Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have, instead, is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world, presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression.” (Said, 1980 “Islam Through Western Eyes” in The Nation)

This is a timely reminder that 35 years on, now is the time for a different look at difference; now is the time for change.

Michelle Scott

Unabridged version available at Ancient Kings and Things

For more about Egyptology, please visit the Curator’s blogEgypt at the Manchester Museum.

Other Stories from the Museum Floor by Michelle:

There be dragons here…
Murder in Mesopotamia?
From Shrunken Heads to Collective Conversations
Encountering Corpses

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