Plzeňské sympozia

Zdeněk Hrbata

Through war to discoveries. Denon's road to art

pp. 239–251 (Czech), Summary 250 (English), 251 (Deutsch)


This paper analyses the key discourse levels in Voyage dans la Basse et la Haute Égypte, a book by Vivant Denon, a member of the society of scholars and artists that accompanied Napoleon's military expedition to Egypt. From May 1798 to October 1799 Denon wrote a chronologically incomplete chronicle of the Egyptian campaign, including battles, encounters, pursuits, the horrors of war and the extreme conditions, a chronicle that is concurrently a travelogue journal with the customary topics (inhabitants, mores and customs) and an epic structure (the voyage, obstacles, wanderings and struggles). Moreover, as the author looks around Thebes, Luxor, Denderah (Tyntiris) and Aswan, he colourfully and enthusiastically relates the discovery of Egypt, carefully describing and tirelessly drawing. The variety of discourses in Denon's Travels (e.g. the discourse of war and its heroization, as well as its cruel aspect; the discourse of discoveries and emerging Egyptology; travelogue discourse) gradually takes on the form of the rivalry and conflict of different times. This controversy latently takes place both between the time conserved in Egyptian monuments and the time of war, between the present in motion and the static memorable past in the form of monument discoveries, and evidently between two kinds of insufficient time. The lack of time for Denon as a researcher-archeologist-artist continually comes into conflict with a different lack of time for the soldiers. The speed of the military operations and the need for redeployments conflicts with the slowness of the documentarization and the sketching. In addition to this disjunction the paper focuses on Denon's representation of the battles and campaigning, and in connection with them, on the responses of the pre-Romantic aestheticians at that time (the aesthetics of the exalted and of nature and the poetics of ruins and melancholy) in the processes involved in writing, travelling, war and acquiring knowledge.


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