SOUVENIRS DU SPHNIX: Collection Wouter Deruytter,
by Luce Lebart


"A whole collection of photographs of the Sphinx of Giza presents the enigmatic creature, hybrid between animal and human, that stood in the shadows of the pyramids "for millennia until drawings, prints, and especially photographs made it an icon."[1] What sounds like an eccentric endeavour turns out to be a mesmerising collection of images that could first be seen at last year's edition of Les Rencontres d' Arles.[2] Combining historical material from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries with contemporary large-scale photographs by the passionate Belgian collector Wouter Deruytter himself, the exhibition, which included around two hundred images from Deruytter's four-thousand-piece collection, enabled a whole iconography of the Sphinx to unfold.
With only forty of these images and three of his own photographs, the beautifully made Souvenirs du Sphinx, published on the occasion of this exhibition, succeeds in translating the fascination of this colossal statue into book format. Carved from a single piece of limestone, with a length of 72.5 metres and a height of approximately 20 metres,[3] the statue and its positioning in front of the Pyramids of Giza are conveyed as a "photo spot" avant la lettre. Thus, not only do we see the history of photography and its close association with the age of European exploration and colonial conquest evolve in these images; we also encounter a history of archaeology and tourism that was setting in around this time. The viewer is thrown back to the mid-nineteenth century, when Maxime Du Camp and Gustave Flaubert set out on a two-year trip in order to capture the wonders of the East.[4] There are photographs of a Sphinx, still towering quietly and solemnly in the Egyptian desert, by Felix Bonfils and A. Welson & Co. respectively (1865 and 1889), before various print and postcard hot between 1 70 and 1920 tell of a sight being discovered by 'Orient' tourism or serving a background for Scottich soldier fighting in the Anglo-Egyptian War over control of the Suez Canal in 1882. People not only pose in front of the giant lion creature (where it seemed especially popular to be captured while sitting on a camel) but are shown standing on its back and shoulders, and even atop the head. And then there are the image , which document the restoration of the monument and also how its lower body and the paw were freed from the desert sand, sculpting out the seemingly manifest and at the same time obscure image we have of the Sphinx, its history, the stories, and memories it has beheld. "I had gazed so often at photographs of the Sphinx and the Pyramids that the first view of them came as no surprise."[5] This was Simone de Beauvoir's reaction upon her first visit. While this kind of di appointment and fatigue in face of "the real thing" may apply to many a tourist attraction, Souvenirs du Sphinx is a fascinating publication which gives a small glimpse into a huge project of collecting and also pays tribute to a general interest in private collections of historical and everyday photographs which bas developed in recent years."


Christina Topfer
Camera Austria n°133 I 03.2016

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[1] Luce Lebart, "Souvenirs of the Sphinx, like a short history of photography", in Souvenirs du Sphinx: Collection Wouter Deruytter (Paris: Editions Poursuite, 2015), p. 10.

[2] The eponymous exhibition, curated by Luce Lebart, was on view at the Musee departemental-Arles antique from 6 July to 20 September 2015.

[3] Gerald Moers, "Der Sphinx von Gizeh: Das altligyptische Objekt als Imaginationskatalysator", in Bernadette Malinowski, Ji:irg Wesche, Doren Wohlleben (eds.), Fragen an die Sphinx: Kulturhermeneutik einer Chimiire zwischen Mythos und Wissenschaft (Heidelberg: Universitlitsverlag Winter, 2011), pp. 25-50.

[4] Du Camp's travelogue Egypte, Nubie, Palestine et Syrie, commissioned by the French Ministry of Education in 1849 and documenting his and Flaubert's trip to the "Orient" in 125 calotypes, was published in 1852.

[5] Simone de Beauvoir, All Said and Done, 1972, quoted in Souvenirs du Sphinx: Collection Wouter Deruytter, p. 61.