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Hockney and Ancient Egypt

To coincide with our Visions of Ancient Egypt exhibition, Sainsbury Centre Curator, Theo Weiss, explores David Hockney’s engagement with Ancient Egypt.

David Hockney, The Actor, 1963

David Hockney, The Actor, 1963

In the centuries since the end of the Pharaonic Egyptian era, an ever-widening array of international artists have responded to its distinctive visual culture. Within this broad global reaction, British artists have been particularly prominent – using a range of media to explore the ancient civilisation’s continued presence within modern life.

Bradford-born painter, printmaker, and photographer David Hockney (1937 -) has played an especially energetic role in nourishing this present-day interest in ancient Egypt within Britain. As a young man, Hockney witnessed first-hand the heaped shelves of Egyptian artifacts displayed in city museums and, like others coming of age in the post-war period, would frequently have encountered Hollywood visions of resurrected ‘mummies’ and highly dramatic, eroticising portrayals of Egyptian rulers on television and in magazines. But it was during his years as a Royal College of Art student in the early 1960s that Hockney first engaged with Pharaonic Egypt within his own art, in two paintings from 1961 both drawing on the highly visual poetry of Greek-Egyptian writer Constantine Cavafy: the first, A Grand Procession of Dignitaries in Semi-Egyptian Style, depicting three elusive figures (one wearing a classic Pharaonic ‘nemes’ headdress) walking in a mysterious pageant and the other, Egyptian Head Disappearing into Descending Clouds, portraying a sphinx-like form shrouded in a thick, luminous fog.

In the years afterward, Hockney’s engagement with Ancient Egypt remained mediated through film and museums; a situation he drew direct attention to in his largescale 1962 painting Man in a Museum (or You’re in the Wrong Movie). In this painting, Hockney captured a fleeting moment in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum when a large, colourful Pharaonic statue appeared to suddenly come to life behind his unsuspecting friend, producing a humorous juxtaposition between static figure and living monument through which Hockney could toy with ideas of past and present while gesturing to Hollywood’s enduring obsession with Egypt.

David Hockney, Man in a Museum (or You’re In the Wrong Movie), 1962


In 1963, at the age of 26 and having just graduated, Hockney undertook his first tour of Egypt (funded by The Sunday Times, the same sponsors of Howard Carter’s excavations some forty years earlier). During this trip, Hockney came face to face with the Pharaonic era’s great monuments and enjoyed direct access to its key archaeological sites and museums – visiting Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor. Speaking of his first visit to Giza’s iconic pyramids, Hockney recalled being dumbfounded by their sheer age; observing how they “were already two thousand years old and more when Cleopatra showed them to Julius Caesar.” Following this trip, Hockney produced around forty sketches (chiefly depicting Cairo’s street-scenes and nightlife) and a series of paintings. These included The Actor (1963) which, clearly inspired by his recent trip, reproduced at its centre the more-or-less intact stone figure of Pharaoh Akhenaton surrounded by an assortment of unmistakably modern items, including a floral-patterned sofa, blue curtains and lone flowerpot. With its odd mix of old and new, the painting produced a surreal, improbably domestic montage within which Akhenaten’s presence is peculiarly unsettling.

David Hockney, The Actor, 1963

David Hockney, The Actor, 1963


In 1978, Hockney visited Egypt once more while designing a series of stage-sets for the Mozart opera The Magic Flute. Produced shortly after this trip, these hand-painted sets refashioned Egypt again but in new, more romanticised terms: as a series of deserted landscapes full of solitary pyramids and crowded with allusions to ancient esotericism.

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