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Bernard V. Bothmer (1912-1993)

by Richard A. Fazzini

The Brooklyn Museum of Art

(Digitized from Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 32 [1995]:i-iii)


With the death of Bernard V. Bothmer on November 24, 1993, Egyptology lost one of its senior scholars and the last of a small number of Egyptologists who made ancient Egyptian art a significant subject of study within the fields of Egyptology and Art History.

The elder son of Wilhelm von Bothmer and Marie Julie Auguste Karoline Baroness von und zu Egloffstein, Bernard V. Bothmer was born on October 13, 1912 in Charlottenburg, Berlin, and he attended the University of Berlin and the University of Bonn before becoming an Assistant in the Egyptian department of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin in 1932. There, under Heinrich Schäffer and with his slightly older contemporary, Hans-Wolfgang Müller, he began to develop his keen eye and his love of Egyptian art. According to Bothmer, his first lessons in Egyptian art were his conversations with Müller, who also introduced him to the photography of Egyptian art, a subject that became one of Bothmer's passions.

An opponent of the Nazi regime, Bernard von Bothmer left Germany in 1938 and was finally able to reach the United States, in whose military he served during World War II and of which he became a citizen, changing his name to Bernard V. Bothmer.

In 1946, Bernard V. Bothmer was able to resume his Egyptological and curatorial careers as an Assistant in the Department of Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern Art of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a position he held until 1955.

It was in Boston that Bernard Bothmer truly began his Egyptological publishing career, including two articles dealing with the identification of widely scattered parts of ancient monuments. One was a relief ("Ptolemaic Reliefs, I. A Granite Block of Philip Arrhidaeus," BMFA 50, no. 280, 1952, pp. 19-27) and the other a statue ("Membra Dispersa. King Amenhotep II Making an Offering," BMFA 52, no. 28, 1954, pp. 11-20). Identifying such joins, especially in statuary, became a career-long interest.

It was also during his years at Boston that Bernard Bothmer's writings sometimes dealt with several themes that would remain important to him in the years to come. Once such theme was Egyptian symbolism and Egyptian architecture and art as expression of Egyptian religion, as evidenced in his review (JNES 11, 1952, pp. 151-152) of Schwaller de Lubicz, Le temple dans l'homme and his comments, in a publication of Boston's Mycerinus Triad (BMFA 48, no. 271, 1950, pp. 10-7), on similarities between royal and divine facial features being religious iconography. He also commented that "a purely aesthetic approach fails to take into account the multitude of statements expressed by attitude, posture, costume, and attributes of Egyptian statues which alone provide the basic explanation so necessary for the full enjoyment of a work of art." In later years his interest was more purely in the aesthetic, but his not unproblematic interpretations of uplifted heads ("Apotheosis in Late Egyptian Sculpture," Kêmi 20, 1970, pp. 37-48) and "Eggheads" (in L. Lesko, Ed., Egyptological Studies in Honor of Richard A. Parker, Hanover and London, 1986, pp. 10-15) in statuary are only two testaments to his continuing interest in symbolism.

Hardly a view unique to him, there are also present in Bernard Bothmer's earlier ("The Signs of Age," BMFA 49, no. 277, 1951, pp. 69-74) and later works ("Revealing Man's Fate in Man's Face," ARTNews 79, no. 6, Summer, 1980, pp. 124-26) unequivocal statements concerning ancient Egyptian civilization and its art as being strongly associated with or part of the Mediterranean World and Western civilization. Indeed, he once described an Egyptian statue as a fine, Western-like achievement because of the somewhat realistic treatment of its face and despite its Egyptian formalism and stylization (Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period: 700 B.C. to A.D. 100, Brooklyn, 1960, p. 33). And he was long interested in the question of interconnections between Egyptian and Roman realistic portraiture (e.g., "Egyptian Antecedents of Roman Republican Verism," Quaderni de la ricerca scientifica, no. 116, Rome 1988, pp. 47-65).

In fact, and as indicated even in the titles of some of the publications mentioned, a major passion of Bernard Bothmer throughout his scholarly career was realism and the depiction of human and/or the individual in Egyptian art. And this interest certainly fit in well with another of his early but enduring interests.

It was in the early 1950s, while he was still at Boston, that Bernard Bothmer began what became his scholarly life's main focus: the study of Egyptian sculpture, especially statuary, of the Late Period and the development of an archive that would foster such study: the Corpus of Late Egyptian Sculpture. This archive ultimately came to include thousands of photographs and other documentation of Late Period sculptures and is now housed at the Brooklyn Museum. Hans-Wolfgang Müller was drawn into the project as its specialist on royal sculpture, and Herman De Meulenaere of Brussels became the project's expert on inscriptional material. The collaboration on the Corpus between De Meulenaere and Bernard Bothmer continued until Bothmer's death, and Brussels is another home of Corpus material, mostly relating directly to inscriptions.

In 1960, The Brooklyn Museum mounted a special exhibition entitled Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period: 700 B.C. to A.D. 100, its catalogue compiled by Bernard V. Bothmer in collaboration with Herman De Meulenaere and Hans-Wolfgang Müller. Both the exhibition and the catalogue were seminal for the study of the art of this period, and the catalogue, reprinted with some few addenda and corrigenda in 1969, remains the main publication on Late Period statuary. In his later years, Bernard Bothmer sometimes commented, with either surprise and/or justifiable pride, on the high prices commanded for the copies of the catalogue that were occasionally for sale.

That Egyptian Sculpture of the Late Period was mounted by The Brooklyn Museum is due to the fact that in 1956 Bothmer became Assistant Curator in the Department of Ancient Art of The Brooklyn Museum. He was head of this department, now known as the Department of Egyptian, Classical and Ancient Middle Eastern Art, first as Curator and then as Chairman, from 1963 to his retirement in 1982.

Bernard Bothmer moved to Brooklyn via Egypt, where he was on Fellowships between 1945 and 1956. An officer of the ARCE since 1951, between 1954 and 1956 he also functioned as the ARCE's Cairo Director, and was one of the most prolific contributors to the still-young NARCE.

When he arrived in Brooklyn, one of Bernard Bothmer's first tasks called upon another of his passions: editing. He was involved with both the writing and the editing of the exhibition catalogue Five Years Collecting Egyptian Art, 1951-1956 (1956). This was only the first of many Egyptological publications he would edit, sometimes with the assistance of Elizabeth Riefstahl, but more often with Emma Swan Hall. He had very definite ideas about form and style, as his students and many of his colleagues can attest.

Among the publications Bernard Bothmer edited are most of the volumes in a series he created. One of the responsibilities of a curator is to publish and foster the publication of the collection under his or her care. One way Bothmer went about discharging this duty was to institute Wilbour Fellowships and Wilbour Monographs to make it possible for specialists to study aspects of the collection and publish them for the Museum. Alas, the noble attempt to make the books available to students and scholars at very close to cost combined ultimately with inflation to slow down, although not kill, the monograph series.

If Five Years Collecting was the first exhibition with which Bernard Bothmer was associated, it should be noted that he was also a leading player in creating several major loan exhibitions, including 1973's Akhenaten and Nefertiti, co-sponsored by The Brooklyn Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts. Another exhibition, the brainchild of Bothmer and Steffen Wenig, was 1978's Africa in Anquitiy: the Arts of Ancient Nubia and the Sudan, organized by The Brooklyn Museum with the scholarly participation of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/DDR. This exhibition and its catalogue did much to improve the status of the study of Nubia and its art.

As a curator, Bernard Bothmer was, of course, deeply involved in acquiring objects by purchase, gift, or loan, and it is to his discerning eye and hard work that The Brooklyn Museum owes a significant number of the masterpieces and first-rate works of art in its Egyptian collection. When in this country, Bernard Bothmer normally spent part of each week visiting dealers and collectors, and his annual trips to Europe found him examining, studying and photographing Egyptian art in commercial galleries and private collections as well as in museums. It is thanks mainly to his passion for photography during these travels in Europe and his frequent study trips to Egypt that The Brooklyn Museum has, in addition to the Corpus of Late Egyptian Sculpture, another important Bothmer legacy: an archive of well over 100,000 color and black and white images of Egyptian monuments of all periods from around the world.

As a curator, Bernard Bothmer was also involved in the exhibition of objects in the museum's collection, and he became a master of displaying objets to their best advantage in terms, for example, of their positioning in vitrines and their illumination. Those of us who worked for him learned his installation philosophy; and, even though Brooklyn's Egyptian installations have changed greatly in recent days, they are informed by basic aspects of Bothmerian installation philosophy.

It should also be noted that Bernard Bothmer was a valuable source of advice not only to some individual colletors of Egyptian art but also to some museums that had Egyptian objects but no resident Egyptologist. To be sure, he was unsuccessful in completing a project to develop an artmobile in Egypt to help bring knowledge of ancient Egyptian art to the villages of Egypt or, in more recent years, of completing the project to publish updated versions of Legrain's manuscripts for Cairo's Catalogue General on Third Intermediate and Late Period statuary. But he was extremely successful in another museological project in Egypt of which he was the prime mover: The Brooklyn Museum, under ARCE ausipces, served as consultant for the inaugural installation in 1975 of the Luxor Museum of Ancient Egyptian Art and was also responsible for producing the museum's first catalogue.

Such a rich and full museum career would have been sufficient for many, but not for Bernard Bothmer. To his curatorial profession BVB added the profession of teacher, serving as Adjunct Professor of Fine Arts at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University from 1960 to 1977 and as Full Professor from 1977 to his retirement from the museum in 1982. In 1982 he was appointed Lila Acheson Wallace Professor of Ancient Egyptian Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, a chair created in his honor by his friends and colleagues. He continued teaching until a few weeks before his death. Many of today's American historians of ancient Egyptian art owe their training to him. His lectures drew not only graduate students pursuing advanced degrees in Egyptology but also collectors and museum professionals.

And there were his contributions to archaeology as well. While not himself a field archaeologist, Bothmer recognized the importance of archaeology in increasing our knowledge and understanding of the ancient Egyptians, including understanding their art. And so he helped create New York University's Mendes expedition, of which he was Project Director. Its eight seasons of archaeological fieldwork at Mendes and Thmuis between 1964 and 1980 added significantly to our knowledge of several periods of Egyptian history in the Delta. Moreover, he was also the Project Director and one of the creators of the Apis House Project, which conducted six fruitful seasons of excavation at Mitrahineh between 1981 and 1986 under ARCE auspices and on behalf of NYU's Institute of Fine Arts. In 1976 he also encouraged the present writer to begin the still-ongoing archaeological expedition to the Precinct of Mut at Karnak, a project of The Brooklyn Museum conducted with the assistance of the Detroit Institute of Arts and under ARCE auspices.

Bernard V. Bothmer's interests were broad and his influence far-reaching. He will be long remembered by those who knew him and will continue to influence future Egyptologists.


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©2009 Edward K. Werner; text ©1995 Richard A. Fazzini
Last updated: November 13, 2009

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