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April 2016

Abu Simbel, Dendur, and Jackie Kennedy

Temple of Rameses II, ca. 1290-1224 BCE. Abu Simbel, Egypt. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Temple of Rameses II, ca. 1290-1224 BCE. Abu Simbel, Egypt. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Earlier this month, I explored with my students how new meanings and associations with the Temple of Rameses II have been created in recent decades, largely due to the removal of this temple from its original site. In the 1960s, this ancient Egyptian temple fell under threat due to the creation of the Aswan High Dam. Engineers knew that the dam’s resulting reservoir (which is called Lake Nasser today) would submerge this temple under water.

Teams from across the world came together to help figure out a way to preserve the Temple of Rameses II and its neighboring site, the Temple of Hathor. The different proposals and projects are covered well in a “Monster Moves” documentary. Ultimately, the proposal made by Egyptian engineers was accepted, and it was decided that the temple would be cut down and transported on land to another site located 65 meters higher and 200 meters away from the water.

Transportation of the Temple of Rameses II colossal statues. Image from Forskning & Framsteg 1967, Issue 3, p. 16. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Transportation of the Temple of Rameses II colossal statues. Image from Forskning & Framsteg 1967, Issue 3, p. 16. Image courtesy Wikipedia

It was estimated that this project would cost $32 million, with the US, Egypt, and UNESCO splitting the bill evenly. In the end, the project ended up costing more than $40 million altogether. Preparations began to move the structure in 1963, and then the structure was moved between 1964-1968. My students and I discussed how this project ended up being one of international collaboration, which is significant during the 1960s since there were so many political conflicts that were dividing people from one another: the Vietnam War, the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.

One other political event in the United States that took place during this time was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy,  Jr. Interestingly, JFK lobbied to help preserve historic sites in Egypt due to the threat of the Aswan High Dam: on April 7, 1961, JFK sent a letter to Congress, recommending that the United States participate in this UNESCO-led campaign. Unfortunately, JFK did not see the completion of the relocation of the Abu Simbel temples. He was assassinated on November 22, 1963, just six days after the contract was signed between the Egyptian government and the firms that were selected to help with the move.

Although JFK didn’t live to see this project completed, his wife Jackie Kennedy did. In fact, it is probably more significant that Jackie lived through the completion of this project: she was a driving force to have American support for the relocation of the Abu Simbel temples, after she was alerted about this campaign by Luther Gulick. She personally wrote to JFK and appealed to him, saying, “It is the major temple of the Nile – 13th century B.C. It would be like letting the Parthenon be flooded. . . . Abu Simbel is the greatest. Nothing will ever be found to equal it.”It is Jackie Kennedy’s initial appeal to JFK which ultimately impacted Congress’s decision to support this relocation.

Jackie Kennedy Riding a Camel in Egypt, March 28, 1964

Jackie Kennedy Riding a Camel in Egypt, March 28, 1974

In gratitude for Jackie Kennedy’s role in helping to preserve the Abu Simbel site, the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, presented Jackie Kennedy with an ivory sculpture of an ancient Egyptian barge. In addition, the President of Egypt wanted to give a gift to the people of the United States, in order to show appreciation for the help given at Abu Simbel. The Temple of Dendur was selected as a gift. Similar to the Abu Simbel sites, this monument also had to be deconstructed and relocated due to the Aswan High Dam. It was offered to the United States in 1965. Jacqueline Kennedy hoped that the Temple of Dendur would be housed in Washington, DC, in order “to remind people that feelings of the spirit are what prevent wars.”2 The Smithsonian in DC even proposed to house the temple on the Potomac River, but this proved problematic for preservation. In fact, many other museums vied for the opportunity to house this structure (which resulted in what journalists called the “Dendur Derby“), but ultimately the Metropolitan Museum of Art was chosen for the temple’s location in 1967.

Temple of Dendur, c. 15 BC. Dendur, Egypt. Located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy Wikipedia via Jean-Christophe BENOIST

Temple of Dendur, c. 15 BC. Dendur, Egypt. Located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy Wikipedia via Jean-Christophe BENOIST

So, now the next time I think of Abu Simbel or visit the Temple of Dendur at the Met, I’m going to think of Jackie Kennedy! The more I learn about Jackie Kennedy and her support of the arts, the more I am impressed with her. For example, she ensured that numerous artists were invited to her husband’s inaugural speech as president, as a way to showcase the Administration’s intentions to support the arts. I think that her involvement with Abu Simbel helps to fulfill this aim of the Administration too, through supporting global art and the preservation of historical art.

1 Caroline Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy (Hachette Books, 2011). Available online HERE. 

2 Ibid.

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James Dean and Art

James Dean, "Road to Happiness," c. 1954. Oil on canvas

James Dean, “Road to Happiness,” c. 1954. Oil on canvas

Over the past few weeks I have been doing some research on James Dean’s interest in visual art. Although Dean is known as an actor and didn’t professionally dabble in the visual arts, he liked to sketch and occasionally paint. One site claims that there are only three James Dean paintings that are known to exist, including Road to Happiness (shown above). Other works of art are on display at the James Dean Gallery in Indiana. Some select sketches are also found online here. While I don’t think that any of these sketches are revealing of a great artistic talent, it is interesting to think about James Dean’s thought process and how his creative mind is manifest in other outlets beyond acting.

James Dean also had an appreciation for Western art. One of his favorite haunting places at this time was the Museum of Modern Art, and Dean continued to frequent the museum even after he rose to fame.1 A group of photographs from 1954 show Dean visiting with friends at the top of the museum. One of the friends in the group is Roy Schatt (see below); Schatt was a photographer who is famous for a series of portraits of James Dean.

James Dean and Roy Schlatt, roof of Museum of Modern Art, 1954

James Dean and Roy Schatt, roof of Museum of Modern Art, 1954

It is apparent that James liked to reference art and clown around when he was with Roy, and I have two examples to share. One such “artsy” moment was captured below on the set of The Thief.” Here, James Dean pushed his glasses over to the side of his face, so as to give the impression that he had more than two eyes. He turned to Roy and exclaimed, “Hey, I’m a Picasso!”

James Dean rehearsing "The Thief" with Diana Lynn, 1955

Roy Schatt, James Dean rehearsing “The Thief” with Diana Lynn, 1955

Another time, James Dean decided to reference Renaissance sculpture. During the so-called “Torn Sweater” photoshoot with Schatt, James Dean suddenly decided to try a new pose by turning his head slightly to the left and looking down. Schatt recalled, “I asked him what…he was doing, it was such a strange pose. He said, ‘Don’t you see it? I’m Michelangelo’s ‘David.'”3 I’m fairly certain that the photograph below is the one from the photoshoot which refers to this anecdote, especially since James Dean is holding his arm up toward his shoulder, similar to how Michelangelo’s “David” has a lifted arm in order to carry a sling.

Roy Schatt, James Dean from 'Torn Sweater" series, December 29, 1954

Roy Schatt, James Dean from “Torn Sweater” series, December 29, 1954

According to one biographer, Manet was James Dean’s favorite painter, and Manet’s Dead Toreador (1864) inspired the pose that Dean used during the opening of Rebel Without a Cause (shown below).2 Although Dean is turned onto his side in the film still below, There does seem to be some similarities with black clothing of the figures, as well as the ways that the heads are tilted at a slight angle.

James Dean, still shot from "Rebel Without a Cause," and Manet's "Dead Toreador," 1864.

James Dean, still shot from “Rebel Without a Cause,” and Manet’s “Dead Toreador,” 1864.

I imagine that James Dean may personally have seen Manet’s Dead Toreador on display in the National Gallery, if he ever traveled to Washington, DC. Dean was an avid fan of bullfighting; I also imagine that he would have been familiar with the other half of this same canvas, titled The Bullfight, which is part of the Frick Collection in New York.

I read another interesting anecdote which may also reveal Dean’s familiarity with and appreciation of Western art. Screenwriter Stewart Stern revealed that just before the shooting of Rebel Without a Cause, James Dean disappeared a few days. Then, Stern explained that about ten days later “he just showed up at my office and looked at this perfectly blank wall, [and] stood back pretending to admire an imaginary painting. I think he was looking at Picasso’s Guernica. he asked me if it was real or a reproduction, and I said, “Oh…it’s real of course!”‘Dean didn’t even mention his disappearance or why he had come back to work, but simply clowned around about a painting and eventually resumed work on Rebel.

James Dean found inspiration and humor through art, and after his death, James Dean’s image and persona served as a source of inspiration for subsequent artists. Probably the artist who has been most inspired by James Dean’s image and likeness is Kenneth Kendall. Kenneth Kendall actually met James Dean in January 1955, and Dean had asked if Kendall would be interested in sculpting him. This project never came to fruition at that moment; Kendall was focusing on other projects and then James Dean died in a car crash on September 30, 1955. However, Kendall was able to acquire a life mask from Dean’s apartment after his death to use as a model. Kendall has created many depictions of James Dean, including the a nude sculpture and a portrait bust that serves as a monument to James Dean (see below) at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles (which is the location of a few iconic scenes in Rebel Without a Cause).

Kenneth Kendall, James Dean Portrait, Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Kenneth Kendall, “James Dean,” 1955-56. Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

It’s neat to consider how James Dean was interested in different forms of creative expression, not only through acting but also visual artistic mediums. It isn’t surprising to me that his creative persona and talent served as further creative inspiration for visual artists like Kenneth Kendall. Do you particularly like any other works of art that James Dean either created or inspired? Please share!

1 David Dalton, James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2001, p. 125. Available online HERE.

2 Ibid., p. 236. Available online HERE

3 Ibid., p. 119.

4 Ibid., p. 235. Available online HERE.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.