My Egypt 1927
Oil on fiberboard 35.75 x 30 in.
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
[Charles] Demuth’s 1927 Precisionist painting My Egypt directs our gaze upward toward the massive volumes of a concrete silo that fills the canvas. Beyond its study of intersecting places and volumes—a self-consciously American riff on Cubism—My Egypt poignantly embodies Demuth’s search for meaning in the unforgiving realities of America’s industrial landscape. But My Egypt is also a symbolic exploration of exile within one’s own country. Diagnosed with diabetees in 1921, he was forced by illness to abandon his international travels in order to return to his family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Making a virtue of necessity, Demuth turned his art to the silos, factories, warehouses, and flimsy wood buildings that made up the aging fabric of many mid-sized industrial cities like Lancaster.
Demuth’s understated irony paralleled that of his expatriate contemporaries, allowing him to use native subjects without becoming identified with the “American first” trumpeting and shallow patriotism that so often supported such themes. His reluctant decision to return home followed an exhilarating life in Europe. Reentry was a bitter pill.
The title My Egypt imagines Demuth’s return to America in terms of the biblical exile of the Jews in Egypt. The connection comes in part through a familiar modernist association of the concrete silo with the enormous and powerful forms of the Egyptian pyramids. Demuth’s use of the imagery of exile in the context of his return home suggests his ambivalence about his native land. My Egypt also records his sense of being overwhelmed by the sheer insistence of America’s commercial/industrial presence, which blocks the horizon—long denoting the open space of the future. Yet My Egypt combines alienation from his native land with aesthetic admiration for its uncompromising forms. Demuth’s towering icon of American vernacular ingenuity is flooded with light from above; it confronts us with the massive monumentality of an ancient idol. And in its crisp and elegant arrangement of shaded planes and precise volumes, his style pays tribute to the meticulous design traditions of anonymous artisans.
—Angela L. Miller, et al., American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity (2008)