Wednesday, February 18, 2015

186. Ricketts's Last Review

A few weeks before Charles Ricketts died on 7 October 1931, his last book review appeared. The Observer published it on 16 August 1931.

In this piece of criticism Ricketts turned to Egyptian art, one of his favourite subjects, which was treated by the authors of The Art of Egypt. Through the Ages, published by The Studio in London (1931). Ricketts's review, as usual, contains maxims and opinions that are highly quotable, such as: 'art has learnt to smile'.

The Art of Egypt. Through the Ages (1931, spine)
This particular review has never been reprinted, as was the case with many critical pieces that Ricketts wrote for magazines and newspapers.

Age-Long Egypt

Egypt has been described as the fountain head of ur Western civilisation; to-day other contributory sources are known; this has not invalidated her achievement. No other culture has shown so long a period of success; where Persia, India, and China can boast more than two thousand years of Art, Egypt can claim many millenniums. Two causes have saved the vestiges of this civilisation, a desire for the imperishable in the materials used, and the cult of the dead. Over the several schools of official and sacred  sculpture hung the rigour of ritual and rule, not in the same degree the service of the tombm and to this we owe the preservation of countless beautiful things of everyday use. It is often said that Art for its own sake, save in Greece, Italy, China, and Japan, is of modern invention; like all theories the exceptions prove the opposite to be equally true; necessity does not command a delight in technical beauty, and in all things of personal adornment we detect in Egypt the aesthetic impulse, divorced from utility. The volume under review fulfils a need for such a work in English, for, despite the epoch-making discoveries of our archaeologists, such as Sir Flinders Petrie and Mr. Howard Carter, an apathetic and somnolent British Museum has made the public indifferent to Egypt. Even in this book, outstanding treasures in our national collection are not included, such as the Lion found on the site of Gebel-Barkal, the world's supreme masterpiece in animal scripture, nor the head of Amenhotep III, the most technically perfect example of colossal sculpture known, while illustrating several things in Bloomsbury which most museums can rival or outclass. We miss the famous portrait of Nefretiti, besides some unique early base-reliefs also in Berlin. There is, however, a welcome avoidance of dry technicalities in the text, the preface by Sir Denison Ross is pleasantly lucid, Professor P. Newberry, Mr. Howard Carter, and Professor E.A. Gardner contribute short authoritative articles, while the anonymous paper on Muslim glass and ceramics is of the utmost interest.

The Art of Egypt. Through the Ages (1931, front cover, detail)

In this brief review it is impossible to discuss the blending of early cultures and races, which, about three thousand years B.C., resulted in works wherein Egyptian art seems to spring into spontaneous existence. From the second dynasty a dual character is ever present, one tending to formality, the other to greater realism; it is as if a compelling hierarchy strove constantly to control the expression of this artistic race with rigid laws impeding a free rendering of the human body, not so in the face, nor the character of animal life. The early period of the pyramids achieved masterpieces in realistic and idealised portraiture and narrative bas-relief, though our knowledge is confined to shattered monuments and rifled tombs.

Several centuries later, within the reign of a few kings, we reach the technical climax of Egyptian sculpture, in effigies of Sesostris III. and Amenemhet III.; in these a searching quality in facial modelling, an austere and ardent inner life makes us mourn the sudden eclipse of this noble phase of Egyptian art under a barbaric foreign invasion lasting over a century.

With the advent of a strong native rule (the eighteenth dynasty) sculpture, architecture, painting, and countless exquisite crafts display a variety which justifies us in calling this epoch the Egyptian Renaissance. Owing to the chances of preservation we know more about this period than about any earlier or subsequent time. A new vivacity, a conscious striving for grace appears, art has learnt to smile. The energy expressed in the earlier sculptures melts into sweetness, elegance, pensive charm, and even melancholy. Under the patronage of the heretic pharaoh, Ikhnaton, child, bird, and flower are given enchanted preservation, ceilings become  clouded with doves and butterflies, while fragile painted pavements recall gardens and flowering water pools, painting strives to break with dimensional convention in tangled growths, clustered flights of birds, and probably in genre subjects. No passage in history reveals the moral and artistic changes brought by Ikhnaton, whose personal effort, during ten years only, broke the encroaching power of the priest, and revolutionised an immemorial tradition.

Statue of Akhenaten (Ikhnaton), Aten Temple, Karnak

He built a city where the poor could be exalted and privilege given to Art, there he could brood on his vision of beauty and peace, when death struck him down before the recoil of a hostile world, who annihilated his work and strove to destroy every vestige of his name, even upon the ribbons of his shroud. The tomb of one of his immediate successors, Tutankhamen, has yielded a fabulous mass of treasure, which has transformed our conception of Egyptian art. Among masterpieces are even some things resembling Parisian articles of the Place Vendôme.

This heyday of artistic adventure gives way to the formal splendours of the Ramesides, and for centuries there were revivals, realistic and archaistic. Architecture develops, in Ptolemaic and even Roman times, the fantastic double capitals of Esna anticipating Byzantium. In fact, Egyptian architecture never died, it was killed by Christianity, which plunged the activities of the race into Coptic work which looks like the effort of an unhappy black beetle.

Francis Bedford, photograph,'The capitals of the Portico Temple of Khnum, Esna' (1862) (detail)
The crafts of the weaver and ceramist survive later to achieve success under Mohammedan rule, when the people of the Nile rose again to artistic magnificence in superb mosques, mausoleums and delicate domestic architecture to the very threshold of the last century, when the art of creative building vanished there as it has throughout the entire world.

The conclusion of this piece, as a matter of course, denies the values of modern architecture that emerged in the 1920s: Gerrit Rietveld's Schröder Huis in Utrecht (1924), Walter Gropius Bauhaus (1925), Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion (1929), and William Van Alen's Chrysler Building in New York (1930).

Ricketts's admiration for past masters did not always allow him to discern masters among his contemporaries.