Unearthing the Meaning of Forgery — Before the Opening of the Upcoming Exhibition of Pagan & Coptic Sculpture in the Brooklyn Museum

It was a wonderful afternoon in the peaceful Green-Wood Cemetery. Prof. Daniel Howe gave a lecture about his pulitzer  awarding winning book of What Hath God Wrought,  followed by Jeff Richman‘s trolley tour about the important people of the same period (1815-1948) buried in the rural cemetery of that time.

A Pyramid tomb in Green-Wood Cemetery
A Pyramid tomb in Green-Wood Cemetery

The trolley meandered the winding roads no faster than the speed of a leisure walk. Then I saw the tomb chapel that had stuck me last time: an Egyptian Revival tomb mingled with Christian themes.

I didn’t have the chance to get off the trolley to look at this tomb closely. Sure it has the pyramid shape, the winged sun go under the eave, sure the statues in the front of the entrance are reminiscent of Gigantic statues in the New Kingdom like those in Ramsesseum. There is even a sphinx on the left with the head of a pharaoh. But to anyone who has read about Egyptian arts and history, it is just a mere reflection of Christianity in the guise of Egyptomania. There are small details that just bother me.  For example, the position of the sphinx is on the left side of the door which is in general considered less important (or  from another angle, the asymmetry is destroying the Ma’at). Similarly the tail is curled up from the left of the body which would probably not appear in real Egyptian antiquity. Most of all, there is Joseph, Mary and Jesus that stand prominently so that no matter how the eyes of visitors may be busy grasping details here and there, they will eventually focus on these group of statue.

This reminds me of the upcoming exhibition “Unearthing the Truth: Egypt’s Pagan and Coptic Sculpture” in the Brooklyn Museum starting from Feb 13, 2009.  Museums are not immune to forgeries, but to great extent, they could avoid it when equipped with scholars and curators with in-depth knowledge of the fields. But from 1950’s to 1970’s, when large quantities of coptic art with overly stated Christianity symbolism came up to the antique market, scholars didn’t question the authenticity of them, instead embracing them to support their publication of Coptic Christian origin.

This was not the first time, nor will be the last time when social science study fails because of the biased foundation upon which it is based. It happened when the researchers tended to have more or less homogeneous social and racial background: white, male, Christian. The Victorian self-centered egoism in the research attitude may have receded to a great extent by then, but the influence took a longer time to die out. There is nothing wrong about  looking  for evidence diligently to support  conjectures/hypothesis beforehand, yet without delving deep and broad in the field such conjectures and hepothesis are ill-fated at the beginning.

Of course, it would probably not happen today. Long gone of those free antique markets when provenance was not a big concern. Those shrewd dealers may sense the demand of certain style or subjects in the 1950’s, but they would not be able to pass the customs nowadays with anything substantial in their pockets.

On the other hand, the Brooklyn Museum is making a bold and innovative approach to exhibit their collection. Instead of hiding the forgeries in the store rooms, they are going to show them and tell the public of the story from a history of egyptology point of view. It serves well for both general visitors and in-field scholars. In particular, Egyptology is a field of vast topics and time span with large number of controversies and contradictory theories.

Without getting rid of colored glass, we may be fooled again in future.  We must not! The Victorial nicety and Eclecticism are appropriate for the final resting places, yet unearthing the truth is all we sought for in scientific and museological  study.

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An example of Egyptian Revival tomb chamber in Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA
An example of Egyptian Revival tomb chamber in Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Left is another exmaple of Egyptian Revival tomb in Homewood Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA. This one features papyrus cluster columns.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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