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Art Facts: documenting a dig at the site of ancient Thebes



In the 19th century, Western artists flocked to Egypt and other Oriental regions to paint the strange architecture, exotic landscapes, and dark-skinned natives. The craze started after Napoleon reopened North Africa to Europeans with his 1798 conquest. Artists tagged along with scientists, diplomats, and sometimes even armies to record the sights of newly conquered lands. The Orient was such a popular subject that other painters even skipped sightseeing and relied on secondary accounts: Auguste Renoir exhibited his Woman of Algiers in 1870, 11 years before he first visited North Africa, and Ingres painted The Turkish Bath (1862) without ever leaving Europe. But by World War I, painting as a way of documenting the world had given way to the less time-consuming portable camera.

In 1985 Chicago artist Martyl helped revive the tradition. She was asked to join a group of academics from the Brooklyn Museum and record their work at an archaeological dig at Luxor, an Egyptian city about 325 miles south of Cairo.

The results of her two-month stay--paintings and drawings from Luxor as well as pictures of temples, open tombs, and the Egyptian landscape--are on display at the oriental Institute through the end of July.

Robert Buck, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, chose to have Martyl record the dig because he thinks a painter can bring to particular images elements that a camera misses. Martyl calls these elements a sense of place. A landscape artist who has been painting since she was 12 and exhibiting since 1941, she explains, "I've included what I know as well as what I've seen; a camera doesn't have the knowledge to do that."

Martyl had been on digs before; aside from some quick reading, she didn't prepare much for the trip. "Like all art history students, I had a superficial knowledge," she says. As it turns out, nothing could have prepared her for her reaction to the place. Like many artists before her have done, she fell in love with Egypt.

Luxor is the site of the ancient city of Thebes, the capital of Egypt in its heyday. Temples at Luxor and neighboring Karnak were dedicated to Amon-Re, the king of gods, and his consort, Mut, who had the body of a woman and the head of a lion. Many lesser goddesses, including one named Sakhmet, took the same form; consequently, the Brooklyn Museum dig uncovered lots of statues of leonine goddesses along with the pottery, remains of buildings, and tomb contents. Martyl used all of these as subjects for her paintings and drawings.

For effect, Martyl sometimes modified what she saw. While painting her favorite view, that of the Valley of the Kings, where most of the leaders of the 18th, 19th, and 20th dynasties are buried, she found herself leaving out some of the details that first attracted her to it. The Valley of the Kings is on the west bank of the Nile at Luxor; the townspeople live on the east bank, and there is lots of traffic across the river. "The people and the donkeys and the camels make these patterns over the hills that you don't get at eye level," she says. Yet she chose to leave the people, animals, and boats out of her several renderings of that view. (The largest, a triptych, measures 6 1/2 feet high and almost 14 feet across.)

As she started interpreting what she saw, Martyl's work became increasingly surrealistic. In Sakhmet Buried, a cross section of ground reveals a prim leonine goddess figure--its head missing--concealed by earth and unruly tangles of weeds. Even her landscapes have distinct moods. Relaxed strokes of watercolor convey the hot, vapory air that hangs between the artist and the view in the smaller View of the West Bank at Thebes. Scratchy hatching makes the pen-and-ink Crypt--Mut Precinct sad and ancient.

Martyl made preliminary sketches of her various subjects, and from these she later completed between 50 and 60 larger works. She spent more than a year in her studio completing paintings and drawings. Most of the preliminary works were done in pen and ink, but some were painted. "I carried my watercolors everywhere," she says. "I never knew when I'd need them." One night, at a sound-and-light show at Karnak, she painted a watercolor of the temple in the dark. One morning at 5:30 she saw light hitting the Valley of the Kings and got up to paint the view.

Martyl usually sat sketching in a broad-brimmed hat and dark glasses to protect herself from the sun. It was about 100 degrees: "The sand fleas go up your legs," Martyl says. "The flies all collect around your sunglasses. It's not easy to draw under those circumstances." It was so hot and dry, she says, that one of the women left a pair of shoes in the archaeologists' compound over the summer and found them melted when she returned in the fall.

Because of the heat, Martyl and the others worked early, took lunches several hours long, and returned to work after the hottest part of the day. Besides the archaeologists and the painter, there were always several local boys at the site moving grocery-sack-sized loads of dirt back and forth all day, and a number of security guards making sure nothing was stolen: "I was told never to stoop over like I was picking up something," she says.

Martyl has painted at excavations in both Turkey and Greece, but Egypt moved her more than either of those places. "I just wasn't prepared for the scale," she says. "It's heroic beyond imagination." Remains of ancient art, architecture, and technology impressed her; she talks a lot about how the early Egyptians incorporated the Nile's cycles of flood and drought into their way of life. "They knew how to handle the Nile," she says.

Since returning to Chicago, she's been reading what 19th-century visitors to Egypt have written about it. "Not a lot has changed," she concludes. She says Amelia Edwards, an English novelist and the first woman to gain international acclaim as an Egyptologist, describes the same view of the Valley of the Kings that Martyl painted. Most important, though, "I realized how seminal all of Egypt was to our civilization. Everything really did sort of start there." She still paints from the sketches she made in Egypt: "It insinuates itself into your psyche."

Site Drawings by Martyl: The Precinct of Mut at Luxor, an exhibition of 39 drawings and paintings and two sketchbooks, runs through July 26 at the Oriental Institute Museum, 1155 E. 58th St. The museum is open 10 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 on Sunday. Admission is free; call 702-9520 for more info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.

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