Friday, February 15, 2019

ANCIENT MODERNITY: The Extraordinary Realism of the Fayum Portraits

The Extraordinary Realism of the Fayum Portraits 

Realism. That is the genre we usually associate with Corot and Courbet and Millet in the 19th century. But go back 19 centuries (!), yes 19 centuries, and you will find among  the first examples in history of Realism, in the extraordinary depictions of Roman Egyptians, the Fayum portraits, crafted in the first century CE.
These remarkably well-preserved paintings have survived for almost two millennia in the dry heat of the Fayum, a region southwest of Cairo. 

The portraits, about a thousand of which have been discovered, are extraordinary, and extraordinarily real. It is as if we are reaching back via a time machine almost two millennia and the subjects depicted in them are right in our living rooms saying hello. Shortly after these portraits and after Pompeii in central Italy (79 CE), the technique died away,  until Tiziano (Titian) and Rembrandt revived it in the 17th century.
The portraits portray a people who accepted Roman rule, Greek culture and Egyptian religion. ''What form could better exemplify this complex ethnicity than the combination of Greco-Roman clothings, hairstyles and jewelry, with the quintessentially Egyptian funerary practice of mummification?'' asked Roger S. Bagnall, a professor of classics and history at Columbia University. 

The two techniques used in these portraits were brought to Egypt by the Greeks: tempera, in which pigments are mixed with egg white; and encaustic, in which pigments are mixed with beeswax, presaging oil painting.The wood used for the portraits, lime and oak, was imported from Greece. 
The portraits had a religious and funerary function even though they look just as they should look if the sitter had asked for their portrait to be painted. 

Whenever we self-servingly think that we are more advanced than the ancients, that we are more “civilized” than they, that we are in some myopically egosyntonic way superior to them, we need only to look at these astonishing portraits and realize that very little is new under the sun.

“Nihil novi sub sole”

Vita brevis
Ars longa

Vincent DeLuise MD
@ 2019

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