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Power of Erasure II


As I mentioned in the previous post, I have been scouring the Internet for source material of large, convincingly realistic examples of mural work by artists like John Pugh and Kent Twitchell for an upcoming mural I'm executing for a local business...

One of Twitchell's most famous and my personal favorite appears on the side of the Citicorp Plaza parking structure located at 8th Street and the Harbor Freeway (CA-110), Los Angeles, California.  It depicts members of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.   It is titled Harbor Freeway Overture.  According to their website,
The first panel, to the far left and closest to the freeway, portrays violinist Julie Gigante. The two figures in the foreground of the middle panel are oboist Allan Vogel and cellist Margaret Moores. In the background of the middle panel, former and current orchestra members can be seen, including violist Roland Kato. Near the center of the group is Tachi Kiuchi, the Mitsubishi executive who arranged for funding of the mural project. The third panel, to the far right, portrays LACO’s concertmaster from 1988 to 1996, Ralph Morrison.

It is estimated that at least 250,000 commuters speed by the 8-story building every day and that the mural took 2000 labor hours and 500 gallons of paint to complete.  The painting is convincing but like many of Twitchell's work it is not a genuine mural. Its painted upon a polyester fabric which has been glued to the building with an appropriate adhesive. Its easy to understand why; safety preference of the artist to work in a studio rather than a swinging lift and the painting can be moved to another site if presented with obstruction or demolition of its host building.  
This little trick is not new, it dates back to at least the early 16th century when Venetian artists were presented with a perplexing problem: how does one paint plaster frescoes in a city with high heat and extreme humidity? Well, you really can't. Frescoes simply do not survive in Venice and egg tempura doesn't quite either unless closeted in a church on wood paneling. In order to oblige the new Venetian commercial and artistic preeminence of the early Renaissance, artists took up a tradition from the Germanic North (from places like Flanders), utilizing fine sail canvas and priming it with rabbit glue or gesso (which had been around since the Old Kingdom of Egypt). Venetians painters ingeniously stuck their "frescoes" on their patrons' walls, made adjustments or corrections of localized color in situ and finished off the pieces with molding, frame details and varnishes. It is widely believed that this method helped the ascension of oil paint and canvas as the painter's preferred medium, solidifying its dominance for future centuries.

In my efforts to find the best image of Harbor Freeway Overture I took to Google Map's Street View. This perspective, shown below, is taken from the sidewalk on the bridge spanning 8th street.  Google's automated software has, quite humorously, removed the portraits from the painting in an effort to keep personal identities private from online users.

Harbor Freeway Overture (as Google sees it)

This got me thinking about the ancient belief in smiting one's enemies with the power of erasure. The earliest example of doing just that comes out of, again, the Old Kingdom. There are many, many examples of royal dynasties wiping out the frescoes inside the tombs and temples of their enemies, familial embarrassments or most commonly, reminders of inconvenient historical facts. One of the most glaring examples is the destruction of Hatsheput's image (1508–1458 BCE) at her mortuary temple complex at Deir el-Bahr (which is accredited to her vizier and sometimes cited lover, Senemut). Hatsheput reigned for about 20 years and was followed by her nephew, Thutmose III.

Now a bit must be said on Egyptian history before I continue. It has holes...gaping holes.  These have been further widened by the ancient Egyptians' unwillingness to record their history factually.  Inter-dynasty strife periodically resulted because of tension, if not outright hostility, between hereditary nomarchs, priesthoods and the Pharaoh-ship.  Natural events too, like low Nile inundation, could greatly effect the kingdom.  The first great "dark age" in history, the First Intermediate Period (circa 2181-2055 BC) was a direct result of widespread famine, completely dissolving the central unification and administration of the Two Lands (ending the Old Kingdom).  Thievery in ancient times was much more rampant than we might believe and much has been lost, sold or hidden.  Foreign occupation helped little, beginning with the Hyksos during the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1786-1550).  European adventurers from Napoleon onward greedily saved much for fame and profit but roughly uprooted a considerable amount sensitive historical context.  We can be thankful for a more modern appreciation of Egyptian history from the semi-tolerant flavor of Islam of the 20th century but should be wary of the recent "revolution" there, as it has birthed a resurgence of wanton destruction and malice towards ancient artifacts and art.

There has been a certain level traditionally, and even contemporaneously, to embellish the fissures of Egyptian history with conjecture, pseudo-facts and impossibilities on the part of historians and archeologists. We have been lead to believe for at least the past 15 or 20 years that the "Woman who would be King" savagely kept her nephew in check and that her fierce Machiavellian style resulted in her being stricken from memory.  Historians like W. Stevenson Smith are one part classicist and one part novelist, never fearing to taint books with a particularly chafing style of chauvinism.  Thankfully we have J. Gardner Wilkinson and William Flinders Petrie to counter him.  Even mostly well-tempered contemporaries like Jan Assmann and Jaromir Malek are guilty of unfair embellishments. There are of course, countless trashy fiction authors, television producers and screenwriters who twist and perverse what we do know about this long-lasting culture. And even more disturbing is the work produced by those in anthropology who bring preconceived notions and feminist biases to bear on an already confounded subject.

We can say for certain that the images which were Hatsheput's in the mortuary temple were removed or destroyed but as to why we cannot say with certainty. It may be that some were plundered in ancient times for profit, some from a gradual realignment of religious iconography under Thutmose's followers or possibly a complete purge of any remnants of the Amarna heresy (which might have been contained near, on or in the temple during Akhenaten's reign much later). We too should remember that her nephew's successor was not in fact a blood relative and had no real interest in preserving a grandfatherly line which included a dangerous female precedent. If Thutmose III was required to respect the office of King by default to solidify his own ascension, it was even less so for his son to do the same. The supporters of Amun might seem at the time more a hindrance to Amenophis II than a benefit. Ed Michael has written a well documented article titled Editing Hatshepsut Creating History in the Reigns of Hatshepsut and Tuthmosis III which nicely breaks down the what-if's from the what's-known.

Essentially, the ancients, perhaps the Egyptians most of all with their extreme superstition, believed that drawing or painting something was the same as to create it in reality. To paint a bountiful scene in the Faiyum Oasis, like that found in tomb of Nakht, Tombs of the Nobles, Thebes,

Ah, the afterlife; its good to be da' king!

was the very same as having the oasis and all its fruits in your own possession. The scene itself is powered by sacred magic, and in this example, awaits the soul of the dead in the afterlife. Conversely, if that fresco is destroyed or wiped out by your enemy, it looses its sacred magic and is tragically destroyed in the afterlife.  Remember well that Hatsheput's temple was a grand narrative on her birth rights and her literal connection to the divine.  The god Amun-Ra did chose her personally and intimately as reagent on earth!  Destroying the images and sculpture in the temple effectively destroys this connection, her lineage and any future divine hereditary claims.  Just the type of claims a certain monotheistic fanatic would systematically root out to establish a new pharaonic godhead.  Whatever the motivations for removing Hatsheput's images from her temple, an ancient Egyptian would believe that her power as King was removed along with them.  We must remember too that her mummy was carefully moved to the sarcophagus of her wet-nurse, according to Zahi Hawass, "...in the Third Intermediate Period, during the 21st or 22nd Dynasties.  The priests moved the mummy of Hatshepsut for reasons of security, as they had in many tombs in the Valley [of the Kings]."  In 2007, her mummy was positively identified with dental records and DNA testing.

The Romans, being particularly legal with so many things, had an official act of erasure for their unwanted which goes a bit further than the that of ancient Egyptians. Damnatio memoriae was the edict given to those individuals with a "damned memory" and were to be stricken from shrines of the Lares and Penates, from all official documents, history, monuments and art.  For a Roman, this was an ultimate shame, one better off having never been born than disgraced in this manner.

Following the genocidal Caledonian campaign in Scotland, Septimius Severus died at Eboracum (York), leaving co-regency to his two sons late in year of 210 AD.  Understandably this immediately caused further tension within the imperial court as the two brothers had been warring privately with one another from their earliest memories of childhood.  There simply wasn't an imperial precedent for a dual monarchy under the rules established by preceding emperors in spite of the co-consulship of the genuine Res Publica.  There were private discussions on splitting the Empire in half as history would later witness.  Caracalla's first attempt on his brother's life was at a festival of Saturnalia at the end of the year.  Later, Caracalla succeeded in murdering his own brother Geta during a meeting of reconciliation (benevolently orchestrated by their mother Julia Domna) at the end of 211 AD.  The Senate, at Caracalla's command officially condemned Geta.  Once vanquished from memory, Caracalla thought to cement his solitary role as Augustus and had most of his brother's extended family killed along with, if we are to believe Cassius Dio, another 20,000 men and woman who were posthumously connected to the dead brother's conspiracy.  Caracalla lavishly bribed the Roman army which he both respected and feared.  To do this he devalued the silver currency and commanded that every free man and woman be given citizenry and rights akin to the Romans themselves (once a coveted status for allies and non-subjugated city-states).  To gain love abroad he organized an extensive building program which was funded by the upper echelons of Roman suburbanites who risked death on refusal.  It's interesting to note that in spite of his skullduggery he is remembered as one of the worst imperial leaders, particularly once he absorbed the sword of his bodyguard commandant, Julius Martialis.  The assassination fittingly took place as the emperor relived himself on the side of the road and most likely was mandated by his praetorian prefect, Macrinus (according to Herodian).   This particular erasure has the opposite effect of its intention 2000 years later as we remember Caracalla with the worst rogues of Rome; Caligula, Commodus and Elagabalus.  The survival of this tondo shows his true and barbaric nature, a person who was spiteful, petty and psychotically murderous.  We should note that Geta was only 22 years old when he died in his mother arms.

What's a little fratricide between friends?

We can plainly see how the Overture, with Google's edits, bears a striking similarity to the tondo of Septimius Severus and his family.  Egg tempera or wax encaustic painted tondos like this were used in offices, basilicas and other official places of business where two parties would swear an oath in front of their contracts and a third party, under the watchful gaze of the emperor.  By doing so an individual was in fact swearing before the emperor himself as if he were literally present.  I believe this particular tondo was used in a private environment (like a meeting guild or lawyers office) as the painting is handled in a bit of crude manner.  The painting simply does not have the level of sophistication and talent of the aristocratic commissions of the famous Faiyum Portraits. I will provide some striking examples of those Egyptian mummy portraits at a later time.  Furthermore, it is telling that the owner, rather than commission a new tondo, has simply followed Caracalla's suit and wiped out the portrait of Geta.  We can see too that this erasure has had the opposite effect and brought even more attention to the very object its suppose to negate.

Google's erasure of the Overture is fortunately only true in that of the digital world and we can use the same technology to easily find a slightly different perspective true to the one intended by Twitchell.  Or better yet we can actually visit this grand painting in person and wonder at its scale, the skill to which it owes its existence and marvel at the wonder of human creativity in music.  We can only hope that Google fixes this error which will take a very human act of anti-erasure, an act that embraces and affirms life: an act that is at once the original purpose of art.