Sunday, July 14, 2013

Master Drawings VI — Landscape With An Obelisk

The Master Drawings series of pictures paired with poems, essays, etc. — drawing from the works in the Ashmolean Museum's present exhibition in Oxford — continues. The next painting was supposed to be one of William Blake's of a scene from Dante's Divine Comedy, but being whelmed beneath the depths of Dante's argle-bargle I threw in the metaphorical towel today.

Preliminary note: Caspar David Friedrich's Landscape with an Obelisk is not on Wikimedia Commons, so here it is (if the link fails us not) at the Ashmolean Museum and in the Guardian's digital pages. Second note: Unfortunately I have forgotten everything about dynasties and time periods and archaeological sites I have ever learned, so this is not written with a solid background on Ancient Egypt. The reader beware, and all that.


It would be remiss not to bring up Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" in connection with Caspar David Friedrich's "Landscape with an Obelisk." They are both charming works in their way, both possessing an Ancient Egyptian element, and both — dare I allege it — art-historically speaking, a trifle inauthentic.

Imbued with a fascination with Ancient Egypt, by grace of school, films and Agatha Christie TV adaptations, and weekends at one's grandfather's and great aunt's homes (they were subscribers to National Geographic, and my grandfather was highly interested in Ancient Egypt himself), one might find "Ozymandias" catchy when one first came across it in school; but one could not fail to consider it a shock to the system.

It was impossible to meld mental images of Ramses, Amenhotep, Nefertiti and cohort together with the fantasy landscape of the poem. From a very personal perspective, and also because I have no idea what Assyrian sounds like and if 'Ozymandias' is intelligible in it, it has always seemed to me more Assyrian than Egyptian. Partly, the poem makes me think of grey stone, whereas somehow the engrained tan and roast-red colours of the Egyptian landscape and ancient art, and the steely sun, are so remarkable that I think the poem should have made reference to them. Edward Lear's delightful series of watercolours from modern Egypt in 1867 (and 1847) certainly does.

By coincidence or design, the sepia-like colours of Caspar David Friedrich's drawing (which incidentally seems to hail from 1803, so before the peak of his production) in my view really does do justice to the Egyptian link. In the meantime the landscape itself seems a tame and indubitably European one — the possible likeness to the agriculture-patched plains of the Egyptian valley being fairly shallow — but it isn't clear at all that Friedrich even meant to portray a southerly setting. (A good researcher would doubtless find this out.)

What I also like about the painting is its coincidentally reflecting the arbitrary way in which obelisks are dispersed around the world these days: near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, in front of St. Peter's Cathedral with a crucifix on the tip, in joyous Paris, in an Istanbul hippodrome, or of course in modern Egypt; and, as an artificial recreation inspired by the real thing, even in front of the dome in a strangely pluriedificed square in Potsdam. (Whether this cosmopolitan placement has become a monument to pirating tendencies or to the ego of the imperially-minded person like Napoleon or to a western love for Egyptian history and art, as much as to whoever originally had it built thousands of years earlier, may well be inquired.)

In Friedrich' setting of the monument, it also seems to have a pleasing modesty about it. Someone thought an obelisk would be pretty, he put it out on a grassy little knoll or what-have-you, and the cows will continue to graze and the lapwings will continue to fly past with scarcely any care of this addition to their haunts.

Illustration: Caspar David Friedrich (1774–1840): Der Sommer (Landschaft mit Liebespaar), 1807 71.4 cm x 103.6 cm; oil on canvas; in the Neue Pinakothek, Munich
[via Wikimedia Commons]

GENERALLY speaking, I think that the modern point of view interferes greatly with one's enjoyment of the poem. Yet, taken apart, its scraps are descriptive as they are universally applicable.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said:

Illustration: "'Ozymandias', Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1817 fair copy, Bodleian Library."
[via Wikipedia]

— 'antique' brings to mind Greece, Rome, or a Biedermeier table, so this is the first misstep in my opinion. But let's continue.

Considering that the pharaohs were likely despots in the figurative sense of the term, it may be unjust of me to take umbrage at this description:
"on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed."
These are fitting words for the portraiture of the species Homo sapiens  type tyrannus, which is by no means extinct. Yet frowns, wrinkled lips, and sneers are not characterizations which in my view apply themselves to the faces in the statuettes, reliefs, papyri and tremendously grand figures which are familiar to us now, from the early rulers of Egypt. These cast them in a different light. They seem formal, they have pathos, and — perhaps because of our preoccupation with embalming and mummification, and because the very monuments which have made their way into contemporary consciousness are often associated with the deaths of these rulers and nobles — they exist in a haze of morbidity. Subjectively speaking, the pyramids did not so much exalt a ruler as they buried him under an enormous weight, and this literal weight mirrors the role of the deceased. "Heavy is the head that wears the crown," but if that metaphorical crown did not weight as heavily on the pharaoh as it did on his labourers, the burden of that suffering and of having commanded it is enormous, at least in the abstract, too.

But Pharaoh's presence in the Bible once, I think, gave rise to very partial and undescriptive ideas of the kingdoms of the Nile, which might have influenced Shelley unknowingly (despite his The Necessity of Atheism-style predilections!).

In the end, Shelley's characterization of Pharaoh seems like an insurrectionist's stereotype of The Man, or a reasonably embittered caricature inspired by current events. In Nineteen Eighty-Four's dystopic terms, "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever."

ABOVE all, however, this irritated me extremely from the moment I met this poem: 'Ozymandias' seems no Egyptian-sounding word. Wikipedia emphatically argues that
Ozymandias represents a transliteration into Greek of a part of Ramesses' throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The sonnet paraphrases the inscription on the base of the statue, given by Diodorus Siculus in his Bibliotheca historica, as "King of Kings am I, Osymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works."
Soit. Edit to add: This unconsciousness of the Egyptian language and its truer transliteration has a direct cause; the Rosetta Stone was 'found' in 1799 but not decoded until 1822. But one can note that Diodorus Siculus' putative inscription is not as instantaneously noxious as Shelley's interpretation:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
But I think it is hard to resist quoting Shelley's.

At the end of the day, or rather of the sonnet, I do love the last three lines:
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Ozymandias (Shelley) [Wikisource]
Text of the poem, which was published in the Examiner in 1818.
Ozymandias [Wikipedia]
Category:Egypt by Edward Lear [Wikimedia Commons]
A comprehensive, perhaps literally exhaustive gallery of 269 pictures — which Lear drew in the 19th century whilst travelling.

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