“In the formal and otherwise so deserted columned hall of the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin, throngs of curious people crowd in. [...] The buzz of sensation, like the flutter of wings, wafts between the papyrus capitals of the colourful temple hall [...]; works of art and curiosities of unparalleled charm have truly been placed in the spotlight”, the weekly magazine Roland von Berlin reported on 13 November 1913, describing the opening of the great Amarna exhibition at the Neues Museum.
This exhibition presented the finds from the Amarna excavations of 1911–13 to the public for the first time. The display was not limited to the objects allotted to the Deutsche Orientgesellschaft at the partage, with numerous sculptures that would later find their home in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo also shown here for the first time. Although the colourful bust of Nefertiti was not included in the presentaiton, this by no means diminished the visitors’ enthusiasm for this novel style of Egyptian art, which was still unfamiliar to the broader public.
Until this point, appreciation of Egyptian sculptures had languished behind classical works from Greece and Rome due to their simplicity of movement and expression. The pieces from the Amarna period, by contrast, displayed a dramatic expressiveness that fascinated artists of all genres, especially amidst the artistic upheaval of the early 20th century.
Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten garnered particular attention. Not only art critics, but also visual artists and poets like Else Lasker-Schüler and Rainer Maria Rilke admired the pharaoh and incorporated his story into their works. Perhaps the best known example of this is Thomas Mann’s description of the royal family at the court of Amarna in the final two volumes of his tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers, which was based on images in the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin. Mann’s description of Nefertiti, however, is not derived from the colourful bust, but instead from the small striding statue of the queen.
Statue of Nefertiti, Egypt, Tell el-Amarna, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1351–1334 BC, ref. no. ÄM 21263, donated by James Simon, photo from the 1920s © bpk / Staaliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek, Photothek Willy Römer / Willy Römer
The Amarna sculptures made Egyptian art socially acceptable. They captured the spirit of the times. People felt a bond with them, as an account in the Berliner Neueste Nachrichten of 15 December 1913 reveals:
There are increasing signs that a more definitive spiritual continuity connects us with Egypt than was previously assumed. In the realm of visual art, particularly contemporary sculpture, much repeatedly refers back to the example and influence of ancient Egyptian art.
Although Ludwig Borchardt, leader of the excavations of 1911¬–13, had already published a profile image of the bust in 1913, he had initially excluded it from the exhibition in the museum. In the newly arranged display of the Amarna collection in the rebuilt Greek Courtyard in 1924 the colourful bust of Nefertiti was now also given a permanent home. Thanks to her vivid colouring, her unwrinkled face and her distinctive lips, the general public soon hailed her as an idol of female beauty in the style of Greta Garbo.
Copies of the bust, based on an accurate reproduction made by the artist Tina Haim-Wentscher, were very popular and sold well. The new enthusiasm for Egypt inspired by the Amarna exhibition also led to the use of Nefertiti and her husband Akhenaten in advertisements for beer, cigarettes, tea and coffee.
On the other hand, the reactions of experts and artists alike to the colourful bust remained subdued compared to the public enthusiasm that the 1913 exhibition of Amarna art, and particularly the depictions of Akhenaten, had aroused. Egypt’s offers in the late 1920s to exchange high-ranking works of art from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo for the bust were therefore quite positively received by experts in the field. But the bust’s popularity with the general public drove the decision to keep the piece in Berlin.
Baroness Nadine Üxküll as Queen Nefertiti at a Berlin ball (right), Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung from 20 April 1930, © Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, archives
The outbreak of the Second World War led to the closure of all the museums on the Museumsinsel, and the colourful bust spent nearly a decade hidden from public view. After being stored at various locations, it was brought to the Central Collecting Point set up in Wiesbaden by the American occupation forces after the end of the war, as were numerous other high-profile works of art that had been saved from destruction.
A small exhibition of these works was staged there in 1946, drawing 200,000 enthusiastic visitors. The bust of Nefertiti was one of the stars. She had lost none of her charisma and appeal. Her austere beauty and almost melancholy gaze once again fit with the artistic sensibilities of the time. In bombed-ravaged Berlin she was also viewed as a symbol of flawless and unscathed beauty.
A visitor standing in front of the Nefertiti Bust at the Landesmuseum Wiesbaden, 1948 © bpk / Hanns Hubmann
After returning to a divided Berlin in 1956, brought first to Dahlem and then to Charlottenburg, Nefertiti became the figurehead of the Ägyptisches Museum in West Berlin, whose holdings were far smaller than those of the East German part of the collection.
Even now, in the 21st century, the bust of Nefertiti continues to fascinate us. Her timeless beauty and unique aura do not just captivate millions of museum visitors, the image of Nefertiti has long since transcended the bounds of a direct experience with the original to become an independent global icon, in the manner of Botticelli’s Venus or Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
Both the impressive presentation of the bust in the North Dome Room of the Neues Museum and its constant and varied presence on the internet have noticeably increased its popularity over the last two decades. Contemporary artists including Candida Höfer, Hans-Peter Feldmann and Isa Genzken have addressed the spatial setting in the North Dome Room and the ideal of beauty that the bust embodies.
By the time she returned to the Neues Museum Nefertiti had well and truly become an iconic emblem of Berlin. The Berliner Morgenpost’s 2010 publicity campaign “Das ist Berlin” (that’s Berlin) exemplifies this: it features an image of Nefertiti, captioned with a quote from a resident of the capital stating that Berlin is “when the most beautiful woman in the city has a migrant background”. A few years later the Friedrichstadt-Palast theatre even rocketed Nefertiti onto the intergalactic stage in its Berlin Review The Wyld. Finally, in the Mickey Mouse comic published that same year the characters’ European tour brings them to Berlin, where Mickey rescues the falling bust, after the fleeing Phantom Blot knocks it from its pedestal.
A guest appearance of the Nefertiti Bust in Mickey Mouse Magazine 32/33, 2016 © Disney / Egmont Ehapa
Worldwide, the striking silhouette and the blue crown alone are enough to make an image recognisable as a reference to Nefertiti. In 2018, for example, when the singer Beyoncé headlined the Coachella Festival in California (as the first African American woman to do so), she used the famous bust in her performance as a visual reference to Egyptian culture. In the following weeks this sparked countless interpretations and controversial discussions, both in the press and on social media. Some praised her use of the bust as a powerful political statement for Black feminism, while others criticised it, arguing that it was based on purely aesthetic motivations and was therefore an exploitative form of cultural appropriation. According to these accusations, which have been raised before, such fashionable references to Egyptian culture reduce it to the status of a mere accessory.
The boundaries between artistic discourse and commercial interests appear to be fluid. Indeed, the image of Nefertiti is used worldwide as a motif for all kinds of products, from painted mini busts to cosmetics and jewellery and even flash drives. We may not find every adaptation of the iconic portrait stylistically accurate, nor every use of it respectful, but the sheer variety of appropriations of the image and the transformation of the bust from an archaeological artefact to a phenomenon of pop culture attest to its universal significance. Independently of all these uses, the bust of Nefertiti speaks for itself. It truly is part of our world heritage.
Images from the campaign “20 Years as World Heritage” by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and the Senatsverwaltung für Kultur und Europa, 2020 © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin