a (very) brief encaustic history

collage ancient encaustic

As modern as collage is, encaustic is equally ancient; used by Roman era Egyptians in the first few centuries A.D. to create funerary portraits that they would then fix to an enshrouded mummy. These are three examples of many that have been found (images taken from the British Museum), the beeswax and resin used in the process provided their remarkable longevity. If you don’t expose encaustic artwork to excessive heat or freezing temperatures, they’re reasonably indestructible.

flag

Encaustic is not a popular contemporary fine art technique, though it is enjoying (I read somewhere) something of a revival. A famous example is Jasper John’s mid 20th century iconic Flag (above), or his equally famous, and I think supremely unsettling, White Flag (below).

white flag

I’ve never seen either in person, but I would very much like to, so that I can see for myself the collaged pieces of newspaper and other quotidian detritus he used as background before painting on the wax.

flag detail

Here it is in closer detail. I love that. Though I suspect if a female artist had done it, it would have been categorised as craft rather than art, but I’m just a little bitter because 44 years of living as a said female does that to you on some days. It’s a fabulous piece of art. I believe it is also a more fragile one than the ancient encaustic examples because Jasper did not mix resin into his beeswax, oops.

I like that as a technique it was developed to enshrine portraits of the dead, and I like that it will leave me with my own set of reasonably permanent research relics that my children will then have to decide what to do with after I am gone; their inheritance a story of other people’s ghosts.

Apropos of nothing, I have set myself a task of reading half a novel tomorrow. Over the course of my Psychology studies I’ve lost something of the concentration span needed to enjoy novels, especially the more literate ones, and it’s to my regretful loss – Kerry once asked me if I read everything, and my current reply would be that I used to. I did make the rookie mistake of asking my much more literate friends for a recommendation, however, and now have an enormous book mountain sitting next to my bed. Bummer that I also have a new semester about to start.

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