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Egyptomania and a Salute to the Machine Age

Howard Carter’s 1922 discovery of the gold-laden tomb of King Tutankhamen not only uncovered the most intact Egyptian tomb ever discovered, it triggered the attention of the world’s press, and a feverish world-wide Egyptomania soon followed.

The IMA acquired numerous Egyptian artifacts in 1928, including this bronze sculpture:

The Goddess Neith, 664BCE - 332BCE; Emma Harter Sweetser Fund; 28.224.

In addition to archeological successes, America’s revitalization and construction boom of the 1920’s was nationwide and Indianapolis was no exception. The economy had mostly recovered after WWI and hadn’t yet fallen into depression. A time of industry, it was a decade of heavy construction in Indianapolis. On Monument Circle alone, the Columbia Club, Guaranty Building, Test Building and Circle Tower still stand today as a tribute to the roaring twenties.

As industry grew, so did the height of the built environment. Skyscrapers were born during this era (the Empire State Building was begun in 1929).  At the time, Indiana’s tallest skyscraper was Merchants National Bank topping out at seventeen stories, and remained the tallest building in Indiana until 1962.  As competition for height soared, so did the demands of decoration.

Art Deco was the most popular decorative art style of the 1920’s, originating in Paris. It is a hybrid art form, combining quotations from empirical civilizations (Egypt) and a hunger for the innovation of the machine industry.  It mainly features linear symmetry and geometric shapes in its design.  Natural and circular forms are limited, or simplified during this time period. Notice the geometric designs of this ancient headdress compared with this purse created in the 1920’s:

Mummy Mask, 332-30 B.C.; Emma Harter Sweetser Fund; 28.243.

Purse, early 1900s. Gift of Stella and Fred Krieger; 2009.312.

Art Deco and traditional Egyptian figural art both feature flat two-dimensional characteristics, as can be seen on Circle Tower. The building is also a nod to Aztec influence – note the stair-stepped design below.

Circle Tower is one of many existing Art Deco building in Indianapolis.  It particularly features intricately designed bronze ornamentation of Egyptian workers. Bronze was similarly popular in the ancient world, as it was a symbol of man’s achievement. (Bronze is an alloy that must be combined through human effort and is not found in nature). The Tower’s main structure is Indiana limestone.

Circle Tower is fourteen stories with a two story tower. It was the first building on the circle to feature “set back” construction in order to comply with the controversial 1905 height restriction ordinance. This ordinance stated that no building could be higher than 86 feet, so as to obstruct the Soldiers and Sailor’s Monument from sight.  So the main part of Circle Tower is 86 feet, but the additional tower is set back, in order to achieve height and carefully comply with the rules.

These bronze elements on Circle Tower show Egyptian iconography through representing figures at work.  Also, on the elevator doors in the interior lobby are similar figures, except they are portrayed as helping pull the elevator ropes and cranks to move the elevator from floor to floor.

So next time you stop at Starbucks on Monument Circle, (a current occupant of Circle Tower) make sure you check out the many unique details of the building (and some not covered in this blog) and next time you are at the IMA , be sure to catch the  Egyptian artifacts on the third floor!


Happy Thanksgiving!

In honor of America’s favorite day of feasting, family, and football, here are works from the IMA’s permanent collection appropriately themed to help celebrate the day.  Enjoy.

Wayne Kimball, "Chairing Thanksgiving," 1982.

Just like that odd distant relative engaging you in awkward small talk for the entirety of the family dinner, Wayne Kimball’s quirky but meticulously crafted lithograph allows us a chance to appreciate that which often goes unnoticed or makes us uncomfortable. Kimball states, “My perceptions of certain past movements in art (most notably Northern Renaissance and Islamic Painting) coupled with idiosyncrasy…lead me to making some rather odd pictures…the compilation, arrangement and execution (and material quality) combine to hint at symbolic interpretations.”


Norman Rockwell, "Ours To Fight For, Freedom From Want," 1943.

Rockwell’s iconic image of the American gathering is more than likely etched in the back of everyone’s minds as we celebrate this season. Culturally significant now for its representation of American nostalgia, it was complementary in its own time to FDR’s “Four Freedom’s” speech given in 1942 to aid the war effort. This lithograph is based on one from a series of four themed paintings:  Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Speech, and Freedom of Worship (the Tenants of FDR’s speech).

Emile Bernard, "Le Moissonneur (The Harvester)," 1889.

Thanksgiving is said to have been born out of an English tradition of appreciative agrarians gathering as a community, not only to give thanks for their fall harvest, but also to rest and celebrate their hard work throughout the summer months. Bernard’s Breton farmers engaged in back-breaking labor to gather wheat from the field with their scythes. Bernard’s primitive technique and subject matter allows the viewer to be transported back in a time where the harvest was well-earned – where one didn’t go to the big-box store to grab a turkey from a freezer section, make stuffing from a box, or pick up a plastic wrapped Pumpkin pie and canned whipped cream.

Workshop of Jan Brueghel the younger, "The Sense of Taste," 1618.

This image is our urging of how not to eat today. Thanksgiving is a notorious diet breaker, and even the strongest-willed dieter can easily crumble at the mouth watering smell of Grandma’s homemade yams or Aunt Becky’s mashed potatoes. Jan Brueghel’s image contains a gluttonous feast, drunkenness, and if you look hard enough in the (bottom center left) you will see a small monkey. This is the artist’s representation of the devil being present in the scene (a common symbol in artwork during this time period). Lesson to be learned: Stuff the turkey, not yourself.


Taking a Closer Look at the Viewing Project: “Above and Below”

Peering out from the gallery windows on the Contemporary floor, the intersection of suspended wires that is Maya Lin’s Above and Below inspires as much confusion as it does awe. This concept is what urged the work of the Viewing Project team, who created an interpretive space in the Davis Lab on the 2nd floor that highlights this site-specific sculpture located a floor above.

Maya Lin, "Above and Below," 2007.

The Viewing Project, which is in its final year, is a three year series of small-scale educational installations providing innovative ways to reactivate the IMA’s permanent collection.  The Viewing Project’s main goals are to encourage new ways of looking at artworks by mixing up the collection in unexpected ways and supporting an enjoyable visitor experience. This includes but is not limited to: hands-on models, comparative artworks across time and culture, videos, flip-labels, technology, and thoughtful questioning.

Typically the Viewing Project installations are located directly next to the artwork they are referring to. With Above and Below, the Viewing Project team bravely took on the challenge of placing the installation in a separate location from the actual work. This method of separating the informational from the experiential aspect of an artwork allows not only new educational connections to be made but also helps visitors make the journey to the sculpture, which is something that hosts its own set of navigational challenges.

The museum has previously experimented with way-finding methods such as arrows on the floor, the walls and posted signage. For this particular project, the team brainstormed about using GPS mapping methods with verbal descriptions, but in the end, they decided the most user-friendly guide would be a handout using photographs of distinct views leading upstairs. This process, along with an overview of the project, is explained by Annette in the video below:

Maya Lin was chosen for this project because her sculpture was not found readily in the museum and certainly deserves more attention.  She combines her unique background in both art and architecture to create forms that quote both industry and nature in a complex way. The sculpture is loosely based on the Indiana Blue Springs Cavern system, which Max Anderson talks about here.  Above and Below was a commission-based project by the IMA in 2007 and is currently on view on the 3rd floor balcony.


The Indianapolis Collection Connection

The local movement is here.  Buy local. Eat local. Shop local.  The IMA is a world class museum (Biennale, anyone?) with a rich local connection, which is why this fall I will be introducing a new series connecting artworks from the IMA collection with historical and contemporary Indianapolis.

Theodor Groll, "Washington Street, Indianapolis at Dusk," 1892-5.

This work from the IMA’s permanent collection by Theodor Groll showcases late 19th century Indianapolis, the State Capitol Building and Washington Street. Groll himself was not an Indianapolis resident, but instead a prominent German artist passing through Indianapolis after judging the German entries for the World’s Exposition in Chicago.

Illuminated by gaslight electricity, the painting exhibits horse-drawn trolleys rattling down the metal tracks in Indianapolis streets. A year after this painting was completed, 1896, the first electric streetcars were introduced in Indianapolis. They were an effective mode of transportation, but were soon phased out by the even more convenient automobile.  The last Indianapolis electric streetcar line closed in January of 1953.

The view also includes the brilliantly lit Park Theater directly to the east of the Capitol building. It was once called, “The most elegant theater in the west” but burned in March 1897, just two short years after this painting was complete. On the right side of the painting, the street is lined with market stalls and a dimly lit saloon, one of many in the area. The 1892 Indianapolis Business Directory listed Washington Street alone as having 74 people in the saloon trade.  In the 1920’s, Prohibition put many of these locally renowned establishments out of business.

If you view historical photos like those from the Indiana Historical Society archives, you will see that Groll’s representation of Indianapolis was somewhat idealized. In fact he finished his painting in Germany using memory, photographs and sketches he had taken while in the city. The painting is fairly accurate except for the sunset appearing to the Northeast, and the distortion of the Capitol building resting on the edge of the street. As you can see in this contemporary photo, it actually sits back much farther.

The Capitol building in 2011

Instead of streetcars we now have IndyGo buses. There are no longer horse-drawn carts and daily markets, but cars and franchise businesses. If you look closely at the painting you can see men and women talking, citizens engaged in commerce, and those headed home in their wagons after a long day in the city. A boy walking his dog, a woman and child walking hand in hand and the formidable State Capitol aren’t much different than what you would see today.

Groll’s painting is a refreshing snapshot of nostalgia and is currently on view on the second floor in American Art. Come take a look!


About Jessica Shepherd

Job Title: Publishing and Media Intern
Interests: Indianapolis culture, historic homes, coffee, riding my bicycle, growing herbs, and Spanish Baroque /Colonial Latin American Art
Favorite Movies: films that either inspire growth or fits of laughter
Favorite Music: anything live, especially Blues and Brazilian Bossa Nova
Favorite Food: Mediterranean.
Pets: A massive cat named Henry.
Something Extra: I used to lead adventure backpacking/rock-climbing trips as well as taught canoeing and kayaking classes. It was the best way to spend the summer!

Jessica has written 4 articles for us.