Egyptomania: The Influence of Tutankhamun
In 1922, the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered by the archaeologist Howard Carter. This was a major event in the history of taste and provoked a craze for Egyptian artefacts, which is sometimes known as ‘Egyptomania’ or ‘Tutmania’. The craze affected cinema, fashion, jewellery and architecture. In particular, the exquisite artefacts of Ancient Egypt were among the major influences on the Art Deco style of design.
Art Deco was a glamorous, decadent style that flourished in the 1920s and 30s: it was the style of the Jazz Age. Art Deco emerged in France, but soon spread around the world, and became especially popular in America. It affected all forms of design, including architecture, interior design and fashion. The Art Deco style is instantly recognisable. It was based on angular forms like trapezoids and zigzags, as well as geometric shapes and sunbursts. Art Deco drew its imagery from a wide range of sources, both modern and historical. It was influenced by modern art, but also by the arts of Africa and Ancient Egypt.
France had been interested in Egyptian artefacts since the time of Napoleon, but the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb inspired French designers to incorporate Egyptian imagery into the new style. The solid gold funerary mask of Tutankhamun uses lustrous materials like gold and lapis lazuli, creating a sharp contrast of colour. It has sinister animal forms – the cobra and the vulture. Artefacts like this appealed on an imaginative level. They revived the romantic fascination with Ancient Egypt. This imagery was immediately incorporated into Art Deco design.
Of course, Ancient Egyptian artefacts were inherently luxurious because, by and large, the only examples that survived were things that had been buried in tombs, which had belonged to the elite of Egyptian society - Pharaohs, royal families and priests. This made them instantly compatible with the luxurious Art Deco style.
This is a clock by Cartier (1927), based on the form of an Egyptian pylon or temple gate, specifically the Gate of Khons. It may seem absurd that this massive architectural form has been reduced down to a minute scale; there is no trace of historical accuracy, but it celebrates the imagery of ancient Egypt in an enjoyably naïve way. The surface is covered in hieroglyphics – the Egyptian system of writing – but none of them have been used correctly; they are treated purely as decorative motifs. In fact, two figures look like they are serving drinks. Of course, it is executed in the most expensive materials, including gold, mother-of-pearl, coral, lapis lazuli and emeralds.
This is a piece of jewellery by Boucheron, the great rivals of Cartier. This is a corsage ornament with lapis lazuli, coral, jade and onyx set in gold. This was designed for the 1925 exhibition. It is not such an explicit imitation of Egyptian forms, it is slightly more abstract, but the colours and motifs are clearly Egyptian in influence.
Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra
Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre
Hollywood was inspired by Ancient Egypt. The film director Cecil B. DeMille started to make historical epics like The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra, and constructed grandiose sets based on Egyptian temples and so on. These films also fed the interest in Ancient Egypt. But this imagery leaked off the screen and was used for the cinemas themselves. Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard was a famous example. This was designed in an overblown Egyptian style that summons up the mystery and glamour of a vanished age.
Cemetery gate, New Haven, Connecticut
The discovery of the tomb had other implications. This is an Egyptian style cemetery gate in New Haven, Connecticut. The Ancient Egyptians established a cult of death that was manifested in Tutankhamun’s tomb. This design revives that rather morbid association.
Perhaps the best example of American Art Deco is the Chrysler Building, built by the Chrysler Corporation and designed by William van Alen. The building is constructed from a steel frame. It is surmounted by a spectacular metallic spire that rises in a series of ascending curves based on sunbursts. The metal cladding was meant to resemble platinum. The ornamentation is based on car styling. The corners have these gleaming metallic eagles that look like modernistic gargoyles: they are replicas of 1929 Chrysler hood ornaments. Te building is a monument to the car industry. The lobby of the Chrysler Building is equally spectacular. It is entirely lined in amber-coloured marble with lustrous metallic fittings. This is an elevator door with a design based on the papyrus flower, another Egyptian motif. It is executed in inlaid wood and metal, making it very opulent.
For a discussion of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, see Lauren Axelrod's excellent article: