‘An insult to every Egyptian’ … the recent grotesque bust of Nefertiti, left, and the great ancient version in Berlin’s Neues Museum Photograph: Getty Images
Egypt has had a revolution, and we should emulate it. We need a revolution against bad public art.
Ugly sculpture is a global phenomenon. From a daft statue of Peter Falk in Budapest to the colossally kitsch couple at St Pancras Station in London, clumsily executed excuses for figurative art are insulting public spaces. And we put up with it. A few aesthetes may gripe, and online galleries have a laugh at all the unsightly art appearing everywhere, but most people passively accept the right of ignorant art-commissioning bodies and arrogant artists to impose their awful taste on the rest of us.
Not so in Egypt. Perhaps emboldened by their recent history of demonstrations and political change, Egyptians have protested against a ridiculous sculpture and got it removed. The “artwork” in question was supposed to be a replica of the great ancient Egyptian bust of Nefertiti that resides in Berlin’s Neues Museum. It was commissioned to stand at the entrance to the city of Samalut, three hours south of Cairo.
Nefertiti’s famous head, with her high hat, was replicated on a colossal scale. Or rather, it was not replicated. Her face, instead of being reddish, was greenish yellow. And instead of beautiful, it was elongated and strangely marked, with closed eyes. In fact, it bore little resemblance to the iconic image of Nefertiti’s beauty.
Egyptian bloggers and Twitter users soon called it “Frankenstein” and denounced it as “an insult to Nefertiti and to every Egyptian”.
So far so typical – public art often gets derided. But then something unusual happened: the people were listened to. Samalut authorities have responded by removing the hideous Nefertiti, and say they will put up a peace dove instead.
For the sake of argument, it is worth pointing out that the artist may have been misunderstood. Maybe this is a more subtle historical reconstruction than it appears to be. Nefertiti was the wife of Akhenaten, Egypt’s notorious dissident ruler of the second millennium BC, who rejected the traditional gods and the artistic style that revered them. Akhenaten insisted on ruthlessly realistic, even grotesque portraiture. He and Nefertiti are both given long, thin, unbeautiful faces in their joint portraits.
The miracle of the Nefertiti bust in Berlin is that it combines the realism of theAmarna style, as it is known, with a feel for grace and harmony to create one of the world’s great icons of beauty.
The “ugly” Nefertiti bust that has offended Egyptians looks like an attempt to re-create the strangeness of the Amarna style. That is probably best done in a museum instead of on a highway, where it might scare people.
Egypt has shown the way forward. Workers of the world, rise up against bad statues. Topple these ugly excuses for public art. You have nothing to lose but your aesthetic pain.