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Egyptian Art: Selected Writings of Bernard V. Bothmer

Egyptian Art: Selected Writings of Bernard V. Bothmer

By Madeleine E. Cody. With the assistance of Paul E. Stanwick and Marsha Hill. Pp. xxii + 517, figs. 483. $60. ISBN 0-19-513071-5 (cloth).

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For several decades Bernard V. Bothmer was a dominant presence in the study of ancient Egyptian art. A Prussian aristocrat by background, he studied in Berlin, working in the Ägyptisches Museum there until he emigrated to the United States in 1939. After World War II he was employed first in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and then in the Brooklyn Museum of Art, ending his career at the Institute of Fine Arts in New York, where he held the Lila Acheson Wallace chair until his death in 1993, at the age of 81.

Bothmer’s diary of his first visit to Egypt in 1950 shows that he then had a project to focus on Egyptian art of the Old and Middle Kingdoms (E.S. Hall, ed., Egypt 1950: My First Visit [Oxford 2003]). His interests shifted, however, and his principal publication was the exhibition catalogue Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period, 700 B.C. to A.D. 100, of which he was the main author (Brooklyn 1960; reprinted with additions, New York 1969). The exhibition was intended as a trail-blazer for a “Corpus of Late Egyptian Sculpture,” but this did not reach publication (its vast collection of documents and photographs is accessible to scholars in the Brooklyn Museum of Art). In addition to the 1960 show, Bothmer initiated other major Brooklyn exhibitions, notably Africa in Antiquity (1978), a significant presentation of Nubian and Meroitic art with catalogue and essays.

As is the case for many scholars with curatorial careers, Bothmer’s legacy lies as much in his work with colleagues as in his publications. His strong personality also made him a powerful influence as a teacher. The same qualities are visible in lighter articles, the majority of which focus on Egyptian statuary, his principal interest.

The present volume assembles 30 articles, prefaced with appreciations by T.G.H. James and Rita E. Freed. The texts are meticulously edited, and the renderings of the original illustrations are generally very good. At the back is a bibliography of the author’s publications (illustrated with no fewer than 12 photographs of him), as well as indices of collections and of subjects.

The articles convey a good sense of Bothmer’s scholarship. His prime focus was the artifact itself rather than its ancient setting. He was more interested in heads than bodies, although he made notable contributions to analyzing the rendering of the torso in Late Period statuary. He clearly relished the polished, hard, dark stones of Late Period statues and did not attend much to the strong probability that they were meant to be painted; nor did he address the likelihood that many statues in other materials have not survived because of decay and reuse. In his preparatory work for the 1960 exhibition and the corpus, he traveled widely, documenting vast numbers of statues, emphasizing methods of recording and photographing, and acquiring an unparalleled visual memory of the material. This mastery led to his identifying numerous joins between fragments in different collections (published in six articles, three included in this volume). Like many scholars, Bothmer wished to assemble comprehensive corpora and was perhaps lured as much by the chase as by its aftermath in reflection and publication.

Themes that emerge include “portraiture,” methodology and terminology of study, connoisseurship, archaism, dating, and faces. A significant characteristic, no doubt deriving in part from curatorial concerns, is the desire to convince the reader of the material’s quality. From a later, nonmuseum perspective, this advocacy may seem distracting, but one must recall that the “organic metaphor” of Egyptian civilization and a tendency to measure any art by implicit Classical standards characterized the mid 20th-century scholarly environment. It was an uphill struggle to convince some people that Egyptian art, particularly from the periods of its “decline” and Ptolemaic “impurity” contemporaneous with classical and Hellenistic times, was worth studying.

Bothmer was more interested in style than in function or iconography (he sometimes used the term “iconography” to mean facial type). In the last generation, iconography has increasingly become a focus of research in Egyptian art, stylistic study less so. Stylistic arguments can be problematic when the ancient works self-consciously exploit earlier styles, so that the discourse of present and past is part of what needs to be interpreted. Some features of iconography that had been dated stylistically, notably certain features of dress, prove not to be associated with historical developments such as the Persian conquest, as Bothmer and others had proposed (see e.g., A. Leahy, “The Date of Louvre A.93,” Göttinger Miszellen 70 [1984] 45–58). Both earlier and later datings have been made probable, while he did not accept a general hiatus in artistic production from about 480 to 400, even after others had pointed it out (e.g., P. Munro, rev. of Bothmer 1960, BibO 22 [1970] 202–3).

A gap in Bothmer’s approach, which he acknowledged, was that he was not a philologist; while he could read hieroglyphs, he relied on others for paleography, translation, and interpretation of the texts that are integral to Egyptian statues. The tendency to separate image and text led to lost opportunities, notably in Ptolemaic statuary, where the two complement each other fundamentally (see C. Zivie-Coche, Tanis—Travaux récents: Statues et autobiographies de dignitaires, Tanis à l’époque ptolémaïque [Paris 2004]; J. Baines, “Egyptian Elite Self-presentation in the Context of Ptolemaic Rule,” in W.V. Harris and G. Ruffini, eds., Ancient Alexandria Between Egypt and Greece [Leiden 2004] 33–61).

Although Bothmer’s themes remained conservative, his work continued to develop, and he revised some of his ideas significantly. The latest article collected, the posthumously published “Hellenistic Elements in Egyptian Sculpture of the Ptolemaic Period” (1996 [465–93 in this volume]), advances considerably on the positions of Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period in its nuanced review of interplay between the different traditions.

Other ideas are no longer current, significant though they were when published. But issues such as dating do not disappear. One of the latest articles in the collection, “Egyptian Antecedents of Roman Republican Verism” (1988 [407–31]), again places the “Berlin Green Head,” the piece that is almost emblematic of Late Egyptian statuary, in the mid first century B.C.E.; I am impressed by the arguments for this date, but there is still no consensus on the matter. Recent contributions by Werner Kaiser in particular (“Zur Datierung realistischer Rundbildnisse ptolemäisch-römischer Zeit,” MDIK 55 [1999] 237–63) have brought welcome order in this area, and in a sense they support Bothmer, because their essential strategy is to engage in mass comparison in their search for evidence to anchor datings. What is more problematic about Bothmer’s approach is his implausible assumption that Roman visitors to Egypt would have had easy access to indigenous temples in which they would have seen relevant works; here his lack of focus on function and context led him to ignore significant issues, including those of modes of transmission.

A similar case is his “Apotheosis in Late Egyptian Sculpture” (1970 [249–78]), which collects many statues with raised heads and interprets them as looking up toward the sun, and thus the sun god. The borrowed term “apotheosis” signifies an inner state, which cannot well be posited for most of the Egyptian works. Moreover, these belong to various types, are of varying size, and often have eyes that point level or even downward, so that they cannot be said to look up. Here, the concern to assemble a corpus overrode issues of interpretation.

Criticisms like these should not obscure the great value of this collection. The original articles were scattered, often in museum journals with limited circulation; the new versions are also harmonized and interrelated. The book is worth studying for the pictures alone. Where conclusions have been superseded by later material and arguments, the new work was often stimulated by Bothmer. The collection conveys a strong sense of the development of Egyptian art history, through both specific topics and changes in focus. Many people will want to use this book; partly in consequence of such changes, fewer will want to read it right through.

John Baines
Oriental Institute
University of Oxford
Oxford OX1 2lE
United Kingdom

Book Review of Egyptian Art: Selected Writings of Bernard V. Bothmer, edited by Madeleine E. Cody

Reviewed by John Baines

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 110, No. 2 (April 2006)

Published online at


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