A dread and terrible Queen – the bust of Nefertiti.

30 January 2012

Photo: Neues Museum, Berlin.

As we have it the bust of Nefertiti is artistically and ritualistically complete, exalted, harsh and alien… This is the least consoling of great art works. Its popularity is based on misunderstanding and suppression of its unique features. The proper response to the Nefertiti bust is fear‘ — Camille Paglia (my mother’s heroine), Sexual Personae; art and decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990).

Almost unbelievably beautiful, her head balanced like an elegant flower upon a slender neck, the iconic bust of Nefertiti represents to the modern mind all the esoteric mysticism, beauty and glamour of ancient Egypt. Despite the fullness of her lips and heaviness of eyelids, there is nothing winsome or sensual about Nefertiti’s beauty, instead its symmetry has an almost chilling, unnerving effect that keeps us at a respectful distance.

According to the official accounts, the bust was discovered by a local workman attached to the team of German archaeologist, Ludwig Borchardt on the afternoon of the 6th December 1912, while they were excavating the remains of the deserted ancient city of Amarna, once the capital of the so called heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten and his Queen, Nefertiti.

The find was made while they were excavating the remains of the house and studio workshop of the sculptor, Tuthmosis, who was responsible for some of the most important sculptures of the Amarna royal family. When the city was abandoned, he had left behind some unfinished, broken or unimportant pieces and it was amongst these that the bust of Nefertiti was allegedly discovered.

We can only imagine the excitement when the bust was brought to the surface and gently cleaned so that its beauty could be seen again for the first time in thousands of years. It must have been immediately clear that here was a piece of enormous significance. As Borchardt himself wrote in his diary afterwards: ‘Suddenly we had in our hands the most alive Egyptian artwork. You cannot describe it with words. You must see it.

Photo: Neues Museum, Berlin.

What happened next is open to some debate – according to the rules of the dig, all artefacts found on the site were supposed to be divided between the French run Egyptian museum service and the excavator but, oddly, the French site inspector took a painted relief of the Royal family instead of the bust, which was clearly the star piece of the dig. There is some speculation about how this came to pass with many people theorising that the German archaeologist team had somehow contrived to conceal the value of their find, either by hiding its existence, taking an unflattering photograph that was shown to the inspector or covering it with mud so that Nefertiti’s radiance was dimmed and it looked like just yet another unimportant royal statue.

Whatever happened, the bust was duly presented to James Simon, the backer of the expedition to Amarna and didn’t go on public display until 1924 in the New Museum in Berlin – its existence having been kept secret at the insistence of Borchardt until a year earlier. The tomb of Nefertiti’s son in law, Tutankhamen had been discovered two years earlier in the Valley of the Kings and the world was still in the grip of a furious obsession with ancient Egypt when the bust went on display to a rapturous reception and went on to become the museum’s star exhibit.

Photo: Neues Museum, Berlin.

Feeling somewhat hoodwinked, the Egyptian authorities demanded the piece be returned to them, which the Germans refused to comply with – only backing down when two equally celebrated pieces from the Cairo collection were offered in exchange. However, the exchange never took place, probably because of protests from the German people.

It was at this point that the story of the bust took a somewhat sinister turn, when it was hailed in the 1930s by the German press as one of the finest art treasures of Prussian Germany and a symbol of German national identity. It was, in short, their Empress. Hitler himself was completely enamoured with Nefertiti’s aloof, austere beauty, regarding her as one of his favourite works of art and describing her as ‘a unique masterpiece, an ornament, a true treasure‘ and befitting an entire new museum which would have her as its centrepiece – ‘in the middle, this wonder, Nefertiti, will be enthroned, … I will never relinquish the head of the Queen.‘ There was clearly no way that the precious bust was ever going to be leaving Berlin.

During the war, the museums of Berlin were emptied of their treasures, which were hidden in shelters for safekeeping. Nefertiti was moved three times – to the cellar of a bank, the tower of a Berlin bunker and then finally to a salt mine in Thuringia, where she was later found by US troops.

Photo: Neues Museum, Berlin.

After the war, the bust was moved several times before finally being returned to the Neues Museum in Berlin when it was reopened in 2009, where she is one of the most important and best loved exhibits. The Egyptian authorities make regular attempts to have the piece returned to them, but it doesn’t look like it will ever happen as by now Nefertiti has a strong and certain place in the cultural identity of the German people.

Controversy will probably always surround the bust of Nefertiti – as well as debate about the circumstances of its discovery and then new residence in Germany, there have also been rumours that the bust is in fact an elaborate fake, either by Borchardt, who used his wife as a model for the piece or by Hitler, to hide the fact that the original sculpture had been destroyed during the war.

These allegations are extremely unlikely to be true as a CT scan has revealed that beneath the smooth, austere perfection of Nefertiti’s face there lies another face, of an older woman with wrinkles and a prominent bump on the bridge of the nose. It’s also been revealed that the pigments used on the piece are those employed by ancient Egyptian artisans.

Photo: Neues Museum, Berlin.

It is believed that the bust was created in the Amarna workshop of Thutmose in around 1345 BC. It was carved from limestone and then coated with a carefully applied layer of gypsum plaster before being painted. There are no inscriptions to identify the sitter but it wears a flat topped blue crown that is usually associated with Nefertiti, whose name, fittingly, means ‘The beautiful woman returns’.

The bust is usually shown in profile, which both displays the elegance of that long slender neck and also conceals the unnerving fact that one of the Queen’s dark eyes is missing. After its discovery, Borchardt searched the studio for the missing eye but was unable to find anything and indeed it looks like the eye was never actually in place which suggests either it a disease or that the piece was unfinished or used to train novice sculptors in the application of inlaid crystal eyes.

It always strikes me as quite funny that a sculpture so revered throughout the world as a depiction of ‘perfect’ female beauty should be missing an eye and I like to imagine unwary tourists approaching it in a reverent hush in its case in Berlin and then jumping back in horrified revulsion when the truth is revealed to them.

Photo: Neues Museum, Berlin.

To me, however, the beauty of Nefertiti is diminished not one whit or iota by her missing eye. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it makes her more approachable or anything like that, but I do like to think that there is something universal and international about her allure, in which case a missing eye just adds to her all encompassing charm.

The portraits of other queens of romance, such as Cleopatra and Mary of Scotland, are apt to leave one wondering where the charm came in about which all men raved, but no one could question for a moment the beauty of Nefertiti. Features of exquisite modelling and delicacy, the long graceful neck of an Italian princess of the Renaissance, and an expression of gentleness not untouched with melancholy, make up the presentation of a royal lady about whom we should like to know a great deal and actually know almost nothing.‘ — J Baikie, The Amarna Age: a study of the crisis of the ancient world (1926).

If you want to know more about Nefertiti and her enigmatic life story, I really recommend Nefertiti: Egypt’s Sun Queen by Joyce Tyldesley and The Search for Nefertiti by Joann Fletcher.