WIth full-color illustrations throughout
From the best-selling author of Sexual Personae and Break, Blow, Burn and one of our most acclaimed cultural critics, here is an enthralling journey through Western art’s defining moments, from the ancient Egyptian tomb of Queen Nefertari to George Lucas’s volcano planet duel in Revenge of the Sith.
America’s premier intellectual provocateur returns to the subject that brought her fame, the great themes of Western art. Passionately argued, brilliantly written, and filled with Paglia’s trademark audacity, Glittering Images takes us on a tour through more than two dozen seminal images, some famous and some obscure or unknown—paintings, sculptures, architectural styles, performance pieces, and digital art that have defined and transformed our visual world. She combines close analysis with background information that situates each artist and image within its historical context—from the stone idols of the Cyclades to an elegant French rococo interior to Jackson Pollock’s abstract Green Silver to Renée Cox’s daring performance piece Chillin’ with Liberty. And in a stunning conclusion, she declares that the avant-garde tradition is dead and that digital pioneer George Lucas is the world’s greatest living artist. Written with energy, erudition, and wit, Glittering Images is destined to change the way we think about our high-tech visual environment.
From Chapter 1
Ghosts carved out of time. Egyptian art is a vast ruin of messages from the dead. Clean and simple in form, Egyptian painted figures float in an abstract space that is neither here nor there. The background is coolly blank. Everything is flattened into the foreground, an eternal present where serenely smiling pharaohs offer incense and spools of flax to the gods or drive their chariot wheels over fallen foes. Hieroglyphics hang in midair, clusters of sharp pictograms of a rope, reed, bun, viper, owl, human leg, or mystic eye.
Resurrection was the master value of a civilization that dreamed of conquering the terrors of death. At the heart of Egyptian religion was a corpse—the mummy of the great god Osiris, swaddled in linen strips. Osiris was murdered and dismembered by his evil brother, Set, who scattered his fourteen body parts throughout Egypt. Isis, Osiris’s sister and devoted wife, collected and reassembled them—except for the missing penis, which she fabricated in wood or clay. As Osiris’s embalmer and enhancer, therefore, Isis acted as a resourceful proto-artist, assembling materials and molding a work of mummiform sculpture that would be reproduced in Egyptian art and cult for three thousand years.
Passage to the afterlife meant a descent to the underworld. Souls hoping for rebirth invoked Osiris and literally became him. Despite its preoccupation with death, Egyptian art is rarely claustrophobic. The beyond was no spectral twilight but a lively zone of physical needs and pleasures. Warehousing stools, chairs, tables, chests, clothing, perfumes, ointments, jewelry, games, daggers, boomerangs, chariots, and jars of extracted viscera, the tomb was a distillation of real life. The urbane aristocrats promenading across the walls are wide-eyed and cheerful as they face the great unknown. Their majestically enthroned guardian gods often seem faintly comic, with the large heads of birds, beetles, or hippopotamuses, vestiges of primitive animism.
Resurrection also symbolizes our modern recovery of Egypt. For a millennium after the fall of Rome, Egypt was wrapped in a haze of occult legend. After Islam’s arrival, it became a closed world whose pagan remains were ignored and neglected. Napoleon’s 1798 invasion helped start Egyptology: a French officer’s discovery of the Rosetta Stone led to the decipherment of hieroglyphics, while the immense, multivolumed report by Napoleon’s team of surveyors and scientists set off a craze for Egyptian style that swept European architecture and decor and would even produce America’s Washington Monument. Over the next century, thanks to photography, knowledge of Egypt was gradually spread throughout the world. The ancient Egyptians have finally achieved their immortality.
From earliest times through the Middle Kingdom, the rulers of Egypt were buried in sprawling necropolises at the desert’s edge near the Delta, as the Nile fans out -toward the sea. The principal sacred districts were at Saqqara and Giza, where the Great Sphinx, hacked out of bedrock, still guards Chephren’s mammoth pyramid. After a devastating Syrian invasion, the capital of Egypt was moved four hundred miles south to Thebes. There the upstart warrior pharaohs of the New Kingdom created their own cemetery facing toward the setting sun across the Nile—the Valley of the Kings, scarcely more than a dry gulch behind the high, horned escarpment of the Libyan Plateau. Pyramids or telltale markers of any kind were prudently avoided. The coffins were buried deep in the rock and the entryways heaped with rubble. Nevertheless, most tombs in the Valley of the Kings were looted within two centuries. One that escaped detection belonged to a minor king, Tutankhamen, who died young. When his tomb was found and opened in 1922, the staggering treasures, such as his solid-gold mummy case, gave tantalizing hints of what the grave goods of a star pharaoh must have been.
Royal wives and children were buried in the nearby Valley of the Queens, where eighty tombs (called “Houses of Eternity”) have been found. The most lavish one belonged to Nefertari, first and favorite wife of the imperialistic Rameses II, who sired at least forty-five sons from eight wives and who ruled for more than sixty years during the thirteenth century B.C.. Nefertari’s unusual status was signaled by her figure being made the same size as the king’s at her shrine at Abu Simbel, where four seated colossi of Rameses were cut from a Nubian cliff on the Nile. Nefertari (her name means “the Most Beautiful of Them All”) was of noble but not royal blood. She may have been a cousin or even a younger sister of Nefertiti, charismatic queen of the rebel monotheist ruler Akhenaten. Nefertari bore Rameses’s firstborn son, who died tragically young, perhaps inspiring the story in Exodus of God’s curse upon Pharaoh. (In Cecil B. DeMille’s epic movie The Ten Commandments, Anne Baxter plays a seductive Nefretiri to Yul Brynner’s arrogant Rameses.) Nefertari had at least five more children, but the robust Rameses (whose -well--preserved mummy survives in the Cairo Museum) outlived them all. Hence his successor, Merneptah, was the son of a lesser, rival queen.
Nefertari’s tomb was discovered in 1904 by Ernesto Schiaparelli, an Italian scholar and museum director. Sunk forty feet into the bedrock, it has a twofold axis aligned to the compass points and consists of two large ceremonial chambers, annexed by side chapels and niches and connected by a staircase. All that remains of the queen’s pink granite sarcophagus is a smashed lid. The tomb’s ceilings were painted midnight blue and spangled with gold stars to represent the heavens, while the walls and square columns were adorned with religious scenes and symbols. The raw limestone surfaces were first coated with a rough plaster of Nile mud, which was sculpted in low relief. A thin layer of fine plaster was then applied, upon which the designs were painted in tempera—always mineral pigments mixed with an unknown binder, perhaps a gum from the acacia trees of Thebes. A sparkling egg glaze was used as a sealant. Nefertari’s tomb would suffer damage from an earthquake and serious deterioration from rock-salt crystals slowly deposited behind the plaster by seeping rainwater. Thanks to a major rescue project by the Getty Conservation Institute in collaboration with the Egyptian Antiquities Organization (1986–92), the tomb has been repaired, stabilized, and reopened to the public. The conservators’ meticulous cleaning and consolidation (with no new paint whatever) have revealed the murals’ still brilliant color.
The paintings are a narrative of Nefertari’s journey toward the afterlife. She is presented as a pilgrim soul seeking justification and resurrection. There are oddly few references in the tomb to her husband and none to her children or life story. Everything is focused on Nefertari’s spiritual quest. Respectful yet confident of her worthiness, she is a plucky, solitary wayfarer confronting the awesome powers and mysteries of the cosmos. Demons wait to pounce at each of five gates (out of a traditional twelve) leading to Duat, the netherworld. But Nefertari knows the sacred formulas, passes her test, and wins resurrection, proved by her being repeatedly called “the Osiris.”
Excerpted from Glittering Images by Camille Paglia. Copyright © 2012 by Camille Paglia. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Camille Paglia is University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is the author of four previous books: Break, Blow, Burn; Sexual Personae; Sex, Art, and American Culture; and Vamps & Tramps. She has also written The Birds, a study of Alfred Hitchcock.
“Daring…. Beautifully written and rich in details…. A unique mixture of political candor, professional critique, gossipy details, and the author’s trademark inflammatory ideas…. Supports her assertion that the definition of art is already changed. It begs the question, ‘Has anyone else in the art world noticed?’…. Extols the value and enduring legacy of Star Wars as it stands at the forefront of a new definition—a new era—in fine art.” —iFanGirlBlog
“[Paglia is] an art-for-art's-sake worshiper of art and literature whose close readings, influenced by Walter Pater and Sigmund Freud, are pyrotechnic and passionate.... Particularly pleasing are Paglia's sketches on Donatello's still-shocking 15th century sculpture of Mary Magdalene as a starved ascetic, and on Titian's voluptuously sensual ‘Venus With a Mirror’ (c. 1555), two nearly diametrically opposed works that Paglia makes speak to each other by noting curiously androgynous elements in both figures…. The relentlessly austere Caspar David Friedrich's ‘The Sea of Ice’ (1823-24)...is juxtaposed in surprising fashion by the following image, Manet's 1879 ‘At the Cafe,’ a subtle study of ordinary Paris street life. The paintings, as well as the artists and their eras, thereby achieve a collage-like mutual illumination.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Paglia's scintillating prose, acute analysis and perceptive assessments of five millennia of art history make her tour a joy to take, to argue about and to learn from…. A perceptive and enthusiastic guide on this journey to see and experience fully works of art from ancient Egypt to today.”
“It is her prose, jargon-free, muscular, and fearlessly opinionated, that ought to grab readers of any age. Once pulled into the Grand Foyer for her tour through the centuries, the reader is in complete thrall to the masterpieces on view. Paglia opens with an essay about the murals of Nefertari's tomb in Egypt's Valley of the Queens, and right out of the gate—make that grave—her interdisciplinary command of history, archaeology, and even cinema is evident…. [Paglia has] an honesty and enthusiasm that, when wedded to a profound intellect, one can't put a price on.”
—The Barnes & Noble Review
“The book's subtitle—‘A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars’—highlights Ms. Paglia's impressive range and famously eclectic tastes. . . . Ms. Paglia chooses well, from works both celebrated and obscure. She is especially good at the difficult trick of providing context for the newcomer to art history without being tedious for a more experienced reader. She is no dreary docent. . . . She is also adept at helping readers to see the radical original impulse in now familiar art forms.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“A magisterial, poetically composed, and masterly study of 29 great works of Western art. . . . Paglia writes rhapsodically of art's power . . . [she is] one of the most erudite public intellectuals in America.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“The ever-provocative Paglia returns with a survey of Western art, captured in 24 essays that move from Egyptian tombs to Titian’s Venus with a Mirror to Eleanor Antin’s conceptual art project 100 Boots. The provocative part? In the end, she proclaims that the avant-garde is dead and that George Lucas is our greatest living artist. This will get the smart folks talking.”
“[A] highly reflective and imaginative history of images in Western art. . . . Paglia writes with energetic lucidity, and her entries on the Laocoön and Donatello’s Mary Magdalene are standouts in this absorbing volume. Both a valuable cultural critique and an elucidating history, Paglia’s latest would suit the general reader, as well as those looking for an alternative approach to contemporary ways of seeing.”
“Critic/provocateur Paglia applies to the visual arts the same close scrutiny she lavished on poetry in Break, Blow, Burn (2005). . . . An intelligently detailed examination of 29 works of art, ranging from a tomb painting of Egyptian Queen Nefertari to George Lucas’ film Revenge of the Sith. . . . The author cogently locates individual pieces within a cultural continuum and eloquently spotlights the artistic qualities that make them unique. . . . Paglia gives a vivid sense of the sweep and scope of art history. The author loves pop art (Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych), but sections on Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots and Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field display a surprising fondness for conceptualism and minimalism as well. African-American artists get their due in essays on John Wesley Hardrick’s sensitive portrait, Xenia Goodloe, and Renee Cox’s witty Chillin’ with Liberty. . . . Paglia is a wonderful popularizer of art history and art appreciation.”
“Paglia, an ardent and often controversial defender of the arts and creative freedom, argued for the value of poetry in Break, Blow, Burn (2005). She now presents an equally commanding case for reclaiming the visual arts as a necessary and nurturing cultural force in a time of alarmingly diminished support for arts education. Given our ‘screen’ habit, we are awash in a ‘sea of images,’ mostly commercial in origin, that threatens to drown our ability to focus and think critically. The best way to regain our visual acuity, Paglia believes, is to focus on paintings, sculpture, and the decorative arts within art’s rich continuum. So this interdisciplinary firebrand and die-hard populist showcases 29 outstanding works, each representative of a certain style or period, beginning with a tomb painting of Queen Nefertari and working up to Andy Warhol’s portraits of Marilyn Monroe. Paglia’s succinct, lively, and illuminating essays combine aesthetics and social considerations ad she recalibrates our perception of, say, Renaissance artist Donatello’s ‘harsh and imposing’ depiction of Mary Magdalene, or Jamaican performance artist Renee Cox’s Chillin’ with Liberty. The book’s climax is Paglia’s bound-to-be-inflammatory assertion that filmmaker George Lucas is ‘the world’s greatest artist.’ Paglia’s bold and rigorous, handsomely illustrated and welcoming art iconography will accomplish her mission to provoke, enlighten, and inspire..”
—Booklist, starred review