Coffins, mummies, pyramids, scarabs and ancient tombs – words that seem more at home in a film script have been recently seen flooding headlines. Archeologists and Egyptologists seem on the brink of a major discovery that would rock both the academic world and popular culture. With stories about cosmic particles and secret chambers in the Great Pyramids to the burial site of one particularly famous ancient Egyptian, Queen Nefertiti, eyes are looking to Egypt for the next big revelation about this fascinating, though mysterious, ancient culture.
In the art and antiques world, these revelations are particularly exciting. If history has taught us anything, it is that the great enigma of ancient Egypt fascinates Western culture, and that new discoveries will reverberate not only through academia, but pop culture, fashion and design as well.
Interest in Egyptian-inspired motifs first emerged in the West following the Emperor Napoleon’s successful campaign of the region. Following his victory, the Emperor enlisted a team of artists, historians and scientists to document the sights and artefacts of the ancient city. Le Description de l’Egypte was published in 1809, stimulating the first wave of the Egyptian Revival style that continues to be resurrected over the decades.
Obsessed with the exotic and austere new aesthetic, Western designers, artists and architects incorporated these foreign motifs into all aspects of their work. The trend continued through the reign of Napoleon III, with the added momentum of Jean-François Champollion’s deciphering of hieroglyphs in 1822, as well as the installation of an obelisk in Paris in 1836. The influence of these new discoveries are directly evident in the objets d’art of the period. Egyptian Revival canopic urns by the great sculptor Georges Servant, for example, take on an ancient form that mimics traditional Egyptian architectural shapes, while the body of each vase features hieroglyphs and common Egyptian motifs. Decorative pieces also mimicked the austere obelisk form, along with other Egyptian wonders such as the sphinx and ancient goddesses.
The 1920s saw another wave of Egyptian Revival, after the discovery of the young King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. Images from Egypt spread throughout the Western world with news footage of archaeological digs. More than 3,000 years after his death, the pharaoh's reach spread across the Atlantic to the United States, inspiring a new era of Egyptomania that touched everything from fine art to jewelry to Hollywood.
With the new revelations emerging from the ancient city each day, one wonders if the craze for all things inspired by Egyptian culture will be revived once again. As a truly lasting trend that has weathered not only decades, but centuries, the really question seems to be not “if”, but “when”.