The Magic of Art

22 February 2008

Rebecca Wall visits the Fitzwilliam’s Egyptian collections and experiences the thrill of magic and the dark arts

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Walking through the collections of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, from Ancient Egypt through Rome, the Renaissance, and even exhibitions of contemporary work, we can chart our changing attitudes to art and the occult. Viewing these artworks now, from an entirely secular perspective, I am still struck by the wonderful frisson surrounding a display case of Egyptian ritual objects. Carved ivory daggers depict gruesome demons that were intended to protect the owner from malicious forces, while wooden shabti figures imprinted with magic spells would accompany the deceased into their tomb and beyond, serving their needs in the afterlife. Have I just watched The Mummy too many times as a teenager, or is there indeed some lingering resonance of power in objects that had such meaning to their creators, even thousands of years later?

The captions illustrating these exhibits stress the difficulty in drawing distinctions in Egyptian art between ritual, religion and magic. What to us seems strange, outlandish and perhaps slightly uncanny, would to a contemporary, have been a devotional object seen within a religious context-equivalent perhaps to the many depictions of saints, angels and martyrs found throughout other areas of the museum. What all of these artifacts attempt to do is to make some sense of the world around us, and the unseen forces that govern our lives.

Moving round a corner, one finds an exhibition case that is a telling indication of the way in which we can attempt to harm our ideological enemies through destroying their image and art. It houses artifacts from the reign of the Akhenaton, the “rebel” pharaoh who succeeded in revolutionising the Egyptian religious system. He banned the worship of the ancient gods and introduced monotheism in the worship of the sun god, Aten, as well as introducing an unprecedented realism in art. After his death, his portrait and even name were scoured from the walls of the temple, the ancient gods reintroduced, and art returned to the traditional style employed for thousands of years. It is a tactic that has been repeated continuously throughout history, from the destruction of classical idols by early Christians, to that of sculptures in the cathedral of Notre Dame, believed (wrongly) by French revolutionaries to represent the kings of France. These cases aptly illustrate both the psychological power and tragic physical vulnerability of art.

Leaving the quiet world of the Fitzwilliam Museum behind, walking out onto the busy traffic of Trumpington Street, it might be easy to argue that such ritual objects are now devoid of meaning, and any unseen forces in the world will soon be explained by String Theory and the experiments of Swiss scientists. Yet try tearing apart a photograph of someone you love without feeling any guilt, or of a rival without feeling any satisfaction. Ask yourself, does art now serve merely to decorate, to soothe us with its beauty, or can it continue to whisper to us of its own power; to entice us with the possibility that is might just embody something otherworldly, inexplicable, and yes, magical?