a marxian feminist analysis of the bust of nefertiti

A Marxian-Feminist Analysis of the Bust of Nefertiti

            Nefertiti’s bust, found in Berlin’s Altes Museum, has received enough attention for many reasons. Nefertiti’s and the many Egyptian sculptures depicting her speak of her important place in Akhenaten’s New Kingdom (Perry 1988, 48). Many scholars believe that Nefertiti, though not the sole wife of Akhenaten, ruled side-by-side with Akhenaten. This paper is interested in a Marxian-Feminist analysis of Nefertiti and the sculptures depicting her. The main work of art to be evaluated shall be Nefertiti’s bust (Figure 1), though the other sculptures depicting her shall also be used to support some of the claims of this paper.

Figure 1. The Bust of Nefertiti

As to the perspective to be used, Nefertiti´s bust shall be analyzed using Marxist and Feminist perspectives. These two perspectives were chosen precisely because these two perspectives see a work of art with social relevance. In this sense, a combination of these two perspectives shall give us a wider range of perspective of Egyptian society in the New Kingdom. Hence, Nefertiti’s bust shall be seen not only as a timeless work of art but as an artwork that intimates something about the New Kingdom’s social structure. In this sense, art is perceived in time and in space that ought to be appreciated always with history. Thus, this paper aims to not only make us appreciate the bust as a classic; it also aims to make the artwork dialogue with us and tell us something about the society that created it.

Given the goal stated above, this paper shall have the following parts: An elaboration of the Marxist perspective in art interpretation; an application of the Marxist perspective in the bust of Nefertiti; an elaboration of Feminist perspective in art interpretation; an application of Feminist perspective in Nefertiti’s bust. The paper shall end with a conclusion.

Marxist Art Interpretation

 The Marxist approach to art interpretation attempts to come up with social history through art. This is also called as the “New Art History” (Adams 1999, 153) precisely because this sort of art interpretation differs from the old art interpretation that was concerned with “biography, stylistic development, attribution, aesthetic quality, and symbolic meanings of subjects” (Adams 1999, 153). As such, this new art interpretation concerns itself not necessarily with the reasons why an artwork is considered a classic but rather with the “economic and cultural demands made in the world in which the artist lived” (Adams 1999, 153). As such, the interpreter is more prone to ask, “What is the social system that causes people to value productions of this sort?” (Adams 1999, 154). In this sense, the art interpreter becomes concerned with “race, gender, and class” and not with the formal elements that traditionally constitute art. It is these elements of race, gender, and class that ultimately situates a work of art in its historical setting; it is also these elements that ultimately informs us about “ideological assumptions” (Adams 1999, 154) of a certain period through an art work. In the end, for the Marxist art interpreter, the goal of art interpretation is political and not aesthetic. An artwork is meant to be an instrument that aids the interpreter in unearthing deep-seated ideologies and social settings of a certain society. Art interpretation becomes a means and not anymore as an end, for art’s sake.

Lastly, a Marxist art interpretation is characterized by its investigation of a work of art as representative of the “values of the economically dominant class and (the) participants in class struggle” (Adams 1999, 155). Thus, an artwork may be the “mirror” instrument of the ruling class to show themselves; or rather, it becomes the tool of the ruling class wherein they could show themselves as they want to be seen. Also, an artwork is meant to reflect and tell us more about class struggle; about the position of the rich and the poor, or the rich and the middle class. In the end, we could probably surmise more about class struggle by knowing more about the projections of the ruling class. Of course, this means that a Marxist art interpreter has to be quick and sensitive enough to know the struggles embedded in an art work. He/she must also see masks that an artwork wears, and see these masks as they are. It is these implicit messages in an art work that a Marxist art interpreter looks out for and looks at the economic and political significance of an art work (Adams 1999, 156).

Marxist Interpretation of the Bust of Nefertiti

            It was stated above that a Marxist interpretation looks at the economic and political importance of a work of art. It is supposed to look beyond “aesthetic beauty” and look at race, gender, and class relations instead. A work of art, in spite of the masks that it might wear, shows how the ruling class wants to be seen as well as the class struggle that may lie underneath the art work. In the end, an artwork is meant to speak of the class ideology implicit in a work of art. These are the very elements that we would look for in the Bust of Nefertiti. In this art interpretation, we should delay gender interpretation for later, when we make a feminist analysis of the Bust of Nefertiti. The main goal of this art interpretation is to give a social situationer, an exposition of the possible ideology that encapsulated the New Kingdom of Ancient Egypt embedded in the Bust of Nefertiti.

            The bust of Nefertiti, as could be seen in Figure 1, is undeniably that of an important personality in Egypt. Her headdress as well as the accessories that adorn her neck and headdress could never be that of anybody but of a queen. Now, what attracts many people to this bust is not only the fact that this is a remnant from the ancient world; it is also the fact that this bust is grand enough to be that of a pharaoh. Nefertiti’s face is not only beautiful, it is regal and powerful. Anyone who sees a woman of such bearing would undeniably respect her.

            Now, the fact that Nefertiti was powerful enough during the reign of Akhenaten could be verified by other sculptures such as that of Nefertiti and Akhenaten (Figure 2) and Nefertiti and Akhenaten under the sun-disk Aten (Figure 3). These sculptures show Nefertiti holding hands with his husband-pharaoh, slightly walking behind him, but almost the same size as the Pharaoh. This is a telling sculpture wherein a Pharaoh is shown side by side lovingly with his queen. Though the queen is smaller in size and in a fainter color than the pharaoh, she still stands by him. Such a figure tells us that although the pharaoh may still be considered as the head of in an Egyptian society, Nefertiti is still considered a strong queen whose power is close to that of the pharaoh. Such a portrayal is complemented by another sculpture, i.e., Figure 3. In this sculpture, the pharaoh and his queen as seen in two sides, both receiving the same blessing from the sun-disk god. Both are also fully adorned and are portrayed playing with their daughters. This sculpture, enclosed in a rectangular frame, gives the effect that the viewer sees the monarch and his queen through a window. In a snapshot, the power and graciousness of these royalties are portrayed to be a blessing from god. They are recipients of god’s grace and blessing and as such, they seem to be god’s gift to the Egyptian society.

What do these sculptures say about societal relations in Egypt? Actually, these art works confirm what we already know about this ancient society. Aside from the fact that a woman may be vested with a lot of power (which we should elaborate on later), we could also say that this society treats a pharaoh (and in Nefertiti’s case, the pharaoh’s queen as well) short of being a god. Akhenaten and Nefertiti were vested with power such that Nefertiti, because of Akhenaten, became “the embodiment of all aspects of the Egyptian state: (with Akhenaten), she was the head of the administration, be it ‘civil’ or ‘religious’, the representative of the country toward foreign powers, and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces” (“The Pharaoh – man, ruler, and god” 2004). On the two power was concentrated and with so much power concentrated on them, everything seems to emanate from them. Society is a reflection of this power. For example, the middle class and the nobles share in the graciousness of the pharaoh that they deserve to be served by slaves. Slaves were at times given corporal punishment and of course are expected to do tasks that other people would not want to do. Nevertheless, the graciousness of Akhenaten and Nefertiti also speak of a god-given kindness that nobilities and the middle class ought to have as well. This is the very reason why slaves in Egypt were treated well compared to slaves in other parts of the world. We could recall Joseph from the Old Testament who was able to rise to power in spite of his position. There were also a number of slaves who were vested with non-clerical tasks such as being government administrators (“Slavery” 2000). As such, Nefertiti’s bust represents a society that puts premium on hierarchy but nevertheless is gracious enough to give kindness and opportunity for even slaves to do well. Thus, the nobility including the pharaoh and his queen may represent power that they received from god; still, since these are god-given, the ruling class ought to share also in god’s graciousness.

Feminist Art Interpretation

            Gender studies as a field has allowed for what is called a Feminist Art Interpretation. This sort of art interpretation focuses on the exaggeration of sexual differences making socially constructed sexual differences appear to be “natural” (Adams 1999, 156). Thus, women are portrayed to be naturally or innately inferior to men in some societies and are perceived to be as “man’s other” (Adams 1999, 157). Probably, what feminists look at is not only that women are not really that different from men; many feminists also want to see how women may also be homogenized with men such that the standard used on them is the masculine homogenous standard. This is the message of feminists like Luce Irigaray who spoke of women not allowed to be women by society who in the first place created her place and roles. Thus, women are treated as less than men and in this sense too different from men at the same time are required to follow masculine homogenous standards all for the benefit of the masculine. This would mean that a feminist art interpretation would look at a work of art as a means to see how women are portrayed in different societies. In the end, feminist art interpretation also has a political goal which makes an art work subservient to such a goal. Art is supposed to aid in establishing how women are portrayed and how they see themselves in a societal construct.

Feminist Interpretation of the Bust of Nefertiti

            Nefertiti’s bust, as mentioned above, shows power and strength that is short of that of the pharaoh. She is portrayed as an iconic woman who is graced with beauty, elegance, wit, power, charm and all other things that many women could only dream of. She is shown as walking side by side with her husband and is a recipient of the same grace that god provides the pharaoh. Nevertheless, we have also mentioned that Nefertiti is also portrayed as walking behind her husband, usually with fainter color than the Pharaoh.  Again, Nefertiti’s bust as well as the other sculptures that portray her speaks of the place of the woman in Egyptian society. What exactly is the position of the woman in Ancient Egypt?

            Women in Ancient Egypt have enjoyed rights that many women in other civilizations could not even think of. Actually, many of these rights have been acquired by the contemporary woman only recently, and not in all parts of the globe. An Egyptian woman enjoyed legal rights that allowed her to “manage and dispose private property,… she could conclude all sorts of legal settlement, she could appear as a contracting power in a marriage contract or a divorce contract, she could execute testaments, she could free slaves” (Crystal 2007, “Women in Ancient Egypt”). These are just some of the many rights that an Egyptian woman enjoyed. Apart from these legal rights, a woman also could have property and could go around publicly without a chaperone and a veil. Nevertheless, in spite of these many rights of women, they were still lower than men. Few women made it to the top and most women were limited to the home. Also, in spite of these many legal rights of women, few exercised these rights.

            The status of women in the Egyptian society is that of an individual who come close to men (and thus are judged according to the masculine standard) but are not equal to men. This is the very message of the Bust of Nefertiti: women could be powerful, elegant, beautiful, charming, but at the end of the day, she still walks behind the Pharaoh.


            The Bust of Nefertiti speaks of the ideology behind a complex Egyptian civilization. Through this bust, we may intimate into the social structure as well as the position of women in this society.

Reference List

Adams, Laurie Schneider. 1999. Art Across Time: From Prehistory through the Fourteenth Century, vol.1. Mc Graw-Hill.

Ancient Egypt Online. 2000. Man and woman. On-line. Available from http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/people/couples.htm. Accessed: August 9, 2007.

__________. 2000. Slavery. On-line. Available from http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/timelines/topics/slavery.htm. Accessed August 9, 2007.

__________. 2004. Pharaoh – man, ruler and god. On-line. Available from http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/administration/pharaoh.htm. Accessed: August 9, 2007.

Crystal, Ellie. 2007. Women in ancient Egypt. On-line. Available from http://www.crystalinks.com/egyptianwomen.html. Accessed August 9, 2007.

Perry, Marvin. 1988. A History of the World, revised edition. Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin.

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