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Volume 39, Number 5September/October 1988

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Martyl and the Precinct of Mut

Written by June Taboroff
Photographed by Michael Tropea

The use of artists as visual reporters - accompanying armies, scientific expeditions or diplomatic missions, recording landscapes, battles, buildings or other discoveries - has a long history.

Putting its subjectivity aside, art answers the scientist's demand for an accurate record, and often produces visual documents that combine objectivity with great beauty. The depictions of Pompeii by members of the Ecole de Rome and the descriptions of Egypt by Napoleon's Commission on Science and the Arts in 1798 (See Aramco World, March-April 1976) stand as examples of the highest quality of accurate reporting - and they are also works of art in their own right.

Until the photograph became a standard documentation tool for archeology, artists were regularly employed on archeological digs to provide an accurate visual record of the site and the artifacts found in it.

So when the Brooklyn Museum invited the contemporary landscape artist Martyl to join its archeologists in a recent season of excavation at the Precinct of Mut in Luxor, it was reviving a well-established tradition. Yet, going beyond that tradition, Martyl was set free to interpret the excavation and its surroundings as she wished - in terms of her own commitment to art that is not only or purely representational.

Martyl, a noted landscape painter who has a studio near Chicago, joined the staff of the Museum's Department of Egyptian, Classical and Ancient Middle Eastern Art in its annual dig in Luxor - a project intended from its inception to end with a public exhibition. After an initial run in Brooklyn, the exhibition of works on paper, in media ranging from pen and ink to watercolor and acrylic, was displayed for two months last year at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Site Drawing by Martyl: The Precinct of Mut at Luxor not only showed the conceptual development of a contemporary artist working within a theme, but also served as a visual report on the Brooklyn Museum's activities in the excavation and preservation of Egyptian artifacts and architecture. Although the exhibition presented images of sites and objects found from Cairo to Aswan, most of Martyl's drawings were based on the natural and man-made wonders of modern Luxor, a city 525 kilometers (325 miles) south of Cairo, and provided a glimpse of the glories and riddles of Luxor and its monuments.

The area around Luxor is the site of the historic city of Waset, "The Scepter," better known by its Greek name Thebes. Situated on both banks of the Nile, Thebes served as an important religious center and sometime capital for more than 2,000 years. Its west bank is renowned for its cemeteries, including the royal tombs and funerary temples of the pharaohs of the New Kingdom, which lasted approximately from 1570 to 1090 BC. Among the best preserved of the temples are those of Hatshepsut, who ruled between 1479 and 1458 BC as one of Egypt's few female pharaohs; of Ramses II (1304-1237 BC), whose fallen colossus inspired Shelley's "Ozymandias"; and of Ramses III (1198-1166 BC). The bare cliffs of the west bank are a honeycomb of private tombs from a variety of periods.

The fertile Theban east bank is the site of considerable urban remains, few of which have been excavated, as well as of vast numbers of temples and chapels. The pharaohs were both gods and kings of their people, and the Luxor Temple appears to have been a sort of national shrine dedicated to the cult of the divine aspect of kingship.

The other major temples of Thebes are all located in Karnak, about 2,400 meters (1.5 miles) north of the Luxor Temple. Karnak takes its name from those imposing remains - the Arabic word means "fortified village" - and from the temples' pylons, which inspired Homer's description of Thebes as "hundred-gated." Covering an area of more than 120 hectares (300 acres), the monuments of Karnak record the identities and aspirations of the pharaohs, and occasionally of important non-royal personages, from the 21st century BC down to the Roman period, which began in 30 BC. The monuments were built as earthly residences for the gods and goddesses worshipped in Phararonic times.

From about 2050 BC, the beginning of the Middle Kingdom, to the early years of the Christian period, Amon, later called Amon-Ra, was established as the foremost god of Thebes. Eventually, he rose to be considered a national god of Egypt and Egypt's foreign domains. Mut, queen of the gods, was Amon's chief consort; from the time of the New Kingdom, Thebes and other parts of the Nile Valley witnessed her rise to prominence parallel with his.

Mut was the divine mother of kings, and her name may be a synonym, as well as a homonym, for the ancient Egyptian word for mother. She and Amon (or Amon-Ra) had several important children, among whom was the pharaoh of the time; it was Mut who embodied, bore, directed and protected the kingship.

Mut was generally depicted in human form wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, but she could also be portrayed with the head of a lioness or even as a cat - as the Brooklyn Museum's discovery of a statue of her in that uncommon guise demonstrates.

The leonine and feline sculptures indicate that Mut belongs to an important class of interrelated goddesses that included Sakhmet, called "The Powerful," and Bastet, identified as the eye of the sun-god Ra. These goddesses could be beneficent as cats when content, but they could unleash wrath upon the land if they were not appeased by song, drink, music or other offerings. This happened once, according to myth, and the event let loose the forces of chaos, disease and death.

"Mistress of peace and of the war cry; lady of heaven, queen of the gods - great Mut; creator; protector; lady of joy; cobra of dread; vigilant mistress of Karnak; mighty ruler in her Theban temples; she whose spirit exists because her temple endures; she whose temple and city will exist for millions of years" - so reads a hymn in praise of Mut inscribed on a stele.

The goddess had a devoted following in Karnak. The 90,000 square meters (22 acres) of the Mut Precinct at Karnak comprise at least six temples and chapels, the scattered remains of other structures, and the sacred lake Isheru. With its main temples rising from the lake, the precinct was the setting for elaborate cult rituals celebrating the birth of Mut's divine child and the return of the eye of Ra to Egypt, serving to appease and control the goddess.

Although archeological interest in the Precinct of Mut was already strong in the early part of the 19th century, it most often took the form of a hunt for sculptures, especially those of the lioness-headed Sakhmet-Mut. Until recent years, scientific investigation and excavation of the site had been occasional and limited. In 1976, however the Brooklyn Museum began investigating the site as a whole in an attempt to both understand its individual buildings and preserve its monuments. The museum is using its discoveries, which range in date from the 15th century BC to the fifth century of this era, to increase knowledge of Karnak and Thebes and of Egyptian civilization in general.

From a redwood and brick studio surrounded by an oasis-like garden, Egypt's stark expanses of desert and the palms and reeds of the banks of the Nile seem far away and alien. Yet it was in this handsome studio that Martyl did much of the actual painting of the Precinct of Mut. In Luxor, she had made sketchbook drawings and small acrylic paintings of the landscape, architecture and artifacts unearthed in the excavation, usually setting out in the early morning equipped with wide-brimmed hat, folding stool, pens, ink, acrylics and notebooks.

Martyl filled her notebooks with specific drawings of the geology and vegetation, the architecture, and the objects unearthed at the dig. These sketches, her initial responses to the landscapes and ancient monuments, became the raw material for the second stage of her production. Returning to her studio, she used the notebooks "for reference, creating drawings and paintings of increasing scale that go beyond the details of what she observed to register her feelings about place and atmosphere. They culminated in a "View of the West Bank at Thebes II," a triptych measuring some two by four meters (80 by 156 inches) overall. Because the exhibition illustrates all stages of the process, the viewer is able to trace the development from site drawings to finished works and to contemplate what Martyl calls "the artist's decisive challenge: making a sketch into a painting."

The most fascinating aspect of the set of drawings and paintings, however, is not simply the increase in scale but the opportunity to examine the artist's esthetic choices, a window on the act of making art. The notebooks and early drawings are specific notations of visual data. In the acrylic works, the progression is from description to increasing abstraction. Although still rooted in observed phenomena, the forms take on their own significance, and the artist's concern with concrete representation of intangible air and light becomes more evident. Paradoxically, the more abstract the image, the more intense the feeling of place becomes. Martyl renders the effects of the sun in Egypt, for example, with white-hot washes of "blanched light" and a contrasting intensity of shadows. Her color in the daytime images is suffused with light.

In the grisaille pieces - painted entirely in shades of grey, as the term implies - Martyl concentrates on formal concerns, such as the problem of building form from line and wash. She uses a wide range of marking techniques in the linear elements, and grey washes unify the whole. That she chose to execute the largest and most imposing work in this series of drawings in grisaille is significant: Form, pure and simple, without the distractions of color harmonies and dissonance, dominates.

Martyl's subjects range from an aerial view of Aswan and panoramas of the west bank of the Nile at Thebes to detailed studies of pottery shards that succeed in conveying glaze and texture. A number of drawings deal with statues of the Sakhmet class of goddesses; another series singles out tomb entrances. Although one contemporary journalist asserts that "no matter how many photos one sees, or how much one reads, nothing quick captures the grandeur of Luxor's temples, obelisks, and monuments," Martyl's drawings and paintings contest the claim.

In talking about her reactions to the Egyptian environment, Martyl speaks of distance, scale, and timelessness. One of the most abstract images in the series is Aerial View: Aswan. As she explains, the painting was inspired by the memory of an airplane flight over Lake Nasser. The airlane window provided a frame for the scene below. "It was so vivid," she recalls. "The light was a gradation in gray; black pyramidal rocks stood in counterpoint against the sunset." The treatment of the rocks, with their weighty solidity, contrasts strongly with the lyrical, two-dimensional landscape and its subtly inflected washes of color.

The False Doors series is a group of architectural studies of geometric forms, but they also convey a sense of ambiguity and enigma: They require unriddling. Martyl chose these doors, originally constructed to confuse grave robbers, because of their modernity and spiritual aura, she says, and because they "lend themselves to abstraction."

The drawings of the pottery shards were generally made in situ and are fundamentally descriptive. Shape, texture, surface and color accurately report these artifacts unearthed during the excavation; the arrangement of the shards is the artist's formal device.

Sakhmet Buried is perhaps the image in which Martyl gave imagination its freest rein. The Sakhmet form, missing its head and shoulders, is depicted realistically, but the context in which the figure is placed is arbitrary. Because these statues were generally discovered partly or entirely buried in sand, Martyl depicts the figure as though buried - but not in sand: in a transparent background almost subaqueous, surrounded by plant forms. The artist explains that she realized that each of the sculptures excavated had its own expression, and that Oespite the various stages of dismemberment of the statues, the overriding sensation was one of serenity.

Martyl worked alongside archeological teams at Mycenae, on Crete and in Turkey before participating in the Luxor excavation; she is well acquainted with the techniques of architectural drawing. Empathy with landscape has always been a strong point in her work, but she has not made it her only concern. She uses actual views as a departure point for her paintings and drawings; as interpretations of landscapes, they are in fact works about situation in a more abstract sense, and involve not only pure location but a sensitivity to circumstances as well. Her overriding interest in nature, she says, concerns "not nature as such but man's relationship to it." Her drawings and watercolors of historic and archeological sites seem to speak of the human events that happened there.

In the Luxor series, Martyl displays an extraordinary ability to create a "spirit of place." In her different types of work - architectural studies, landscapes, still lifes, figure studies - she fuses the natural and the artful, and grasps the magical qualities of important places in history.

"We walk among the columns," wrote the French novelist Flaubert in his letters from Egypt. "With our palmwood sticks and our daydreams, we stir up this old dust.... Through holes in the temple walls we see the incredibly blue sky and the full Nile winding in the middle of the desert with a fringe of green on each bank. This is the essence of Egypt." Martyl concludes: "It is insinuating."

Instead of Flaubert's palmwood sticks, Martyl uses her brushes and her artist's vision to stir up Egypt's dust: Even when her subjects are familiar, she allows us to see them in a fresh way. Her images enlighten, startle, and provoke.

June Taboroff, who earned her Ph.D. at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, writes on Middle Eastern arts and landscapes.

This article appeared on pages 22-27 of the September/October 1988 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1988 images.