Faces From the Past, for the Future

The Mysterious Fayum Portraits:

Faces From Ancient Egypt

by Euphrosyne Doxiadis

Harry N. Abrams, 247 pp., $35

Scattered around the world's museums - and usually accompanied by surprisingly scant explanation - are some portrait paintings of ancient origin.

They immediately strike you as so lifelike, in such bright condition, and so vigorously painted that you have to doubt their great age.

They also have an apparent spontaneity and directness of touch, as if painted at considerable speed.

We tend to think of such bold immediacy as belonging to our own period, rather than to that of Egypt, Greece, or Rome. But these particular representations (which are mummy portraits) - like some of the marvelous wall-paintings of Pompeii or Herculaneum - prove how wrong we can be.

In fact, they were painted during the first three centuries AD in Egypt at the time of the Roman Empire, and are either by Greek painters or painters trained in the traditions and stunningly convincing realism of Greek portraiture.

Suspicions regarding their authenticity were sometimes voiced when they started to appear in Europe and the United States from the 1880s on. Many of these portraits have little or no provenance, because those who found them were lax about documenting their discoveries. Some of the archaeologists were, however, scrupulous in such matters, which must have helped suspicions about their genuineness to disappear.

Nevertheless, they have still, according to the modern Greek artist Euphrosyne Doxiadis, "been consistently neglected by historians and critics and are virtually unknown to the general public."

There may be some exaggeration in this statement since her new book, "The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces from Ancient Egypt," contains a sizable bibliography, and she herself admits in her text that she approached this corpus of portraits with "humility" because she was a painter rather than a scholarly art historian or archaeologist. In the event, however, she has produced a study of academic distinction as well as aesthetic judgement.

It may also be that more of the "general public" are aware of these portraits than she realizes. One of the most popular general art history books, E.H. Gombrich's "The Story of Art," illustrates and describes one of them. Other widely selling guides also do not fail to include them.

The Fayum portraits (named after the region in Egypt where most of them were found, preserved in the hot dry sand) are irresistible, and quite different from virtually any other known portrait paintings. They are unpretentious yet, in a number of instances, masterly examples of strong, knowing, practiced painting.

Professor Gombrich observes that they "still astonish us by their vigour and realism. There are few works of ancient art which look so fresh and 'modern' as these."

Clearly much research into this subject is still needed, particularly with regard to a precise understanding of technique and materials. But this book provides a thorough-going clarification of the portraits' purpose, social context, historical context, and geographical origin. It goes further. It presents - partly through fine color reproductions, but mainly through Doxiadis's commentaries - a comprehensive view of the Fayum portraits.

Some are extremely naive. Others aspire to an ideal beauty. And then there are the cream of the group, which investigate the character of the "sitter" and leave a moving record not only of a likeness but of a human life.

Whether the individuals represented actually did "sit" for their portraits can only be guessed on the basis of the pictures' quality. Some obviously did not. Since they all come from mummies, they were intended as a way of remembering the appearance of the departed, and as a means of future recognition in the future life. They come at the tail end of the Egyptian tradition of mummification. Fascinatingly, they seem to be of comparatively ordinary (though still surely wealthy) individuals, and not just of pharoahs, state officials, or Greek and Roman emperors.

Later in the history of portraiture, the features of some notable persons were captured in the form of a death mask. Occasionally, portraits of them as if still alive were posthumously concocted from such masks. But the Fayum portraits vividly suggest they were painted from life, because of their persuasive vitality; distinct physiognomies; and their often large, reflective eyes gazing out at us as if they knew us personally (and so, reciprocally, we are bound to recognize them).

There is evidence that some were painted before the subject's decease. They may even have been hung on a house wall like a modern portrait, to be transferred to the mummy later. Some of the faces were painted when the subject was much younger than when he or she actually died.

It is known that many of the Fayum portraits not only look as if they were painted very quickly, but must have been so. This is because the majority are in encaustic or wax, and although Doxiadis is sure that some were made with a cold- wax mixture, encaustic generally meant painting with hot, melted wax. Even in the warm Egyptian climate, this wax (mixed with pigment) must have set rapidly, so the painters would have applied and worked it (with both brushes and graver-like tools) at speed.

It is sometimes said - Dioxadis herself says it - that these swiftly made faces are like Cezannes. If this means "early Cezanne" then there might be some aptness. But the mature Cezanne was an outstandingly slow and painstaking painter.

The Fayum portraits do sometimes look as if they might have been painted in the 19th or 20th centuries, however. Perhaps a closer similarity might be found in Manet. Like the Fayum artists, Manet painted the human face apparently without the slightest doubt or hesitation. Yet neither he nor the best of the Fayum artists made formula faces. They were not just possessed of impressive manual skill, but also of penetrating observation.

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