New life for Egypt's dying arts

At National Gallery, a fascinating, if familiar, show


July 07, 2002|By Holland Cotter | By Holland Cotter,New York Times News Service

Just over 25 years ago, The Treasures of Tutankhamen opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and set a model for the must-see museum event. The show came with sensational art, a sexy story line (teen-age pharaoh, archaeological derring-do, a curse from beyond the grave) and a monumental dose of promotional spin. Attendance was staggering. The blockbuster was born.

The Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt, which opened June 30 at the same museum, is clearly designed to give its predecessor a run for the money, and those hopes are not entirely misplaced. With more than 100 first-quality objects on loan from Egypt, the show is a visual knockout. Although its survey-style concept is a disappointment and a missed opportunity to break new ground in art history, the show is sure to do well.

But then, when it comes to popularity, Egyptian art always does well: It's a winner, right up there with impressionism, as a museum draw. There are all kinds of reasons. One may be that this art, or at least the version of it we are usually given, feels both Western and non-Western, exotic but familiar, African but with Mediterranean connections.

True, certain Egyptian images may look fantastic, even outlandish, as in the case of gods with human bodies and animal heads. But most look pretty much like us, or a chic, extraterrestrial version of us.

Indeed, it's easy to think of the makers of this art as sharing some of our values, being on our spiritual wavelength. Again like us, they seem to have elevated materialism into a form of religion. And while their quality-time vision of eternity comes across as optimistic, it also suggests the same horror at physical decay and personal obliteration that pervades Judeo-Christian culture.

On a popular level, this translates into the air of mystification and spookiness that makes all things Egyptian so appealing to kids and to Hollywood.

Death dominates

There's no question that death was big business in ancient Egypt; almost all the art that survives revolves around it. For privileged members of society, the transition from life on Earth to the hereafter was envisioned as a kind of luxury cruise into eternity, overseen by a crew of protective spirits.

The first object in the show, in fact, is a boat, or a model of one, found in the tomb of the 18th-dynasty pharaoh Amenhotep II, who ruled from 1427 to 1400 B.C. It's a model of the royal vessels that traveled the Nile, and the images painted on its hull make it a vivid advertisement for imperial might: They depict the king in the guise of a god defeating enemies in Nubia and Syria, territories then under Egyptian control.

A combination of divine and human runs throughout Egyp-tian art, evidence of a culture that saw existence as a play of dualities. Depending on the context, real people can be presented as flawless deities or as particularized individuals or both, as in the case of a gold funerary mask made for a court official named Wenudjebauendjed. The youthful face, with its cushiony lips and expressive inlaid eyes, has a distinctive character, while the luminous material signifies that its wearer has been promoted to superhuman status.

This mask, seemingly suspended in darkness, introduces a series of galleries devoted to objects from royal and aristocratic tombs. They hold astonishing things: exquisite jewelry, minute glass vases, child-size funerary chairs and gilded coffin lids in human form. One section is devoted to a single individual, an architect and engineer named Sennedjem, who was buried with the tools of his trade and his many children near the site now called Deir el Medina.

The ancient Egyptians saw the death-and-life cycle repeated everywhere, in the rotation of night and day, the passage of seasons, the rise and fall of rulers and, of course, in individual lives. It was also the rhythm of the afterlife as described in funerary manuals and guides, the most exalted of them being the Amduat, the Book of the Netherworld.

Originally restricted to imperial use, the book gives an hour-by-hour account of the dead pharaoh's daily nocturnal journey from darkness into light. Riding the boat of the sun god Ra, he descends into the underworld, overcomes perilous encounters and emerges victorious with every dawn.

Drawings from tombs

Usually written on papyrus, the Amduat also appeared mural-size on the walls of tombs. The earliest surviving example, illustrated with fleet, cartoon-style paintings, is in the burial chamber of the pharaoh Thutmose III. The exhibition organizers, the National Gallery and the United Exhibits Group in Copenhagen, Denmark, commissioned a European design company called Factum Arte to make a full-scale, digitally produced replica of the Thutmose murals, and their handiwork brings the show to a theatrical, somewhat theme-parkish close.

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