Painting the dead
When I graduated from school I was looking for a job. I remember I spent one day trying to be a tomb stone artist. Yep. You heard me right. A tomb stone artist. It was in my hometown just outside of Chicago. For a moment I thought myself Mr. Cool as I followed in the hip artist’s types to sit at a table filled with air brushes and colors. I told the lady I did not have experience with the medium, but she said: “Give it a try.”
Surrounded by young budding artists (the women were beautiful…the guys had hip chin beards and wire rimmed glasses) I sat and looked perplexed at what was on the table in front of me. Before me were white oval plates with images of various dead people copied onto porcelain. My job was to take the air brush and add color. My job was to bring ‘the dead’ to life.
I WAS HORRIBLE. I blotched here and blotched there. I spewed paint all over the images obscuring them from view. After one day I quit. There…there I admit it. My career as an air brush artist was at an end.
Years later I saw an image that reminded me of this experience. What I did not realize is that this small business in Oak Park, Illinois had an old and honorable lineage dating back to Egypt.
There are things that we do everyday that have ties to the ancients. We have ties with them in art, with our institutions based on THEIR INSTITUTIONS, even our art reflects what has gone on before. Funerary art is still practiced today.
What do I mean?
The Fayum Portraits: Greek and Roman painting style, encaustic (εγκαυστική) (from enkaio “to burn-in” ) on wood, part of the Egyptian culture (funeral portraits). They show the faces of the inhabitants of ancient Egypt at a period influenced by Greeks and Romans. The Fayum portraits are the best preserved paintings of Antiquity.
I was fortunate to see one at Chicago’s Field Museum. It was of a woman, dark hair, beautiful jewelery, and dark and haunting eyes. It was a strange feeling to be enticed by the beauty of someone that lived eons ago in another time or place. I’m afraid I stared at it like Christopher Reeves in the movie Somewhere in Time.
It was the only portrait on the wall, lit by a single spotlight. Death was unimportant, at least NOW it was unimportant.
Imagine her wonder to know that in some future time she would have been admired for her beauty across the ocean on some distant shore. Could she have possibly imagined it?
Her world must have been small. She must have been confined to the city, with occasional visits to relatives. Did she ever go to Rome? Did she see the sea? Was her marriage the most important thing in her life? Maybe she led a full life, rich with friends, study and family. And then one day, she grew ill, and her parents paid for doctors to try to save her, and their best efforts failed.
Could she have possibly known that her funeral portrait would make her famous? Immortality came for her when an unknown artist looked at her on her death bed and began to paint. He captured her beauty, and in a way captured her hope for life as well. At death……she lived forever. Wasn’t that the point of her mummification? The process didn’t do it, but the artist’s brush did.
Interested in your own Fayum Portrait? What would you have looked like if you lived at that time? Check out this web site.