free issue                                   back issues                                               subscribe 

Athena Review, Vol.3, no.2: Exhibition Reports

Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum

The Brooklyn Museum of Art

 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY   (November 23, 2001 - February 24, 2002).

Perhaps more than that from any other time or region, the art and culture of ancient Egypt has attracted the attention of the general public. To many "Egypt" signifies our search into a mysterious and wondrous past-cities lost under the sands, tombs filled with gold and the mummified remains of the dead, pyramids said to hold unknown secrets, and scrolls revealing powerful spells, written in a bold hieroglyphic script only decipherable to a few. Undoubtedly it is our longing for these mysteries that fuel the audiences for movies like "The Mummy", Discovery channel specials, as well as blockbuster traveling exhibits, the most famous of which, featuring objects from King Tutankamen's tomb, set off a "King Tut" craze around the world.

If you are looking for another glitzy, sensationalistic view of the Egyptian world, however, Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum will not be it. Due to an unparalleled opportunity made possible by the renovation of the British museum and organized along with the American Federation of Arts, the exhibit features some of the most important works from one of the most important collections of ancient Egyptian material in the world. It is thus not surprising that the exhibit emphasizes these works as "masterpieces" of Egyptian art rather than focusing on ancient objects as evidence for everyday Egyptian life, as was the case for the highly successful exhibit on view at the Brooklyn Museum five years ago, Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt. What is surprising, however, is that despite containing mostly "great" works, often of royal figures, the exhibit remains scholarly in tone. There is gold here, along with elaborate papyri scrolls, and towering colossi figures, but they are meant to inform as much as be admired.

Fig.1: Seated statue of Ankhwa, Old Kingdom, 3rd Dynasty (Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum).

Arranged in chronological order, the exhibit spans over 3,000 years of continuous development in Egyptian art. It takes a careful observer to distinguish the changes in Egyptian art styles over this long timeframe, however, as one of the hallmarks of Egyptian culture is its reverence of tradition- "evolution" in Egyptian art includes much looking to the past and deliberate archaism. Thus, it is only by noting such details as the strong, broad features and characteristic back-less stool that one can ascribe the seated figure of the royal shipbuilder Ankhwa (fig.1) to the early Old Kingdom period (Dynasties 3-6; ca. 2686-2181 BC). We can see a similar simplicity and sturdiness in the Fourth Dynasty statue of a woman, who, although she once wore a gold necklace and bracelet (as evidenced by rough surfaces remaining on her chest and arms), has such a strong, athletic figure that scholars theorize that even royal women were accustomed to physical labor in this early era (fig.2).

The stockiness of these early Old Kingdom sculptures can be compared to more elegant figures made of wood from the late Old Kingdom exhibited near-by. Along with their longer, slender bodies and oversized heads with large, staring eyes, figures from this period can be recognized by in an unusual departure--both women and men are shown completely nude, without the usual Egyptian status symbols of clothing and jewelry. A particularly fine example of this Sixth Dynasty style in Egyptian art is the ebony statue of Meryrahashtef--a lithe male figure, striding so that every muscle is clearly depicted with youthful vigor.

Fig.2: A Royal Woman, Old Kingdom, 4th Dynasty, ca. 2613-2566 BC (Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum).

After the Old Kingdom period, unified political power in Egypt collapsed and regional art styles reigned. Finally, King Mentuhotep II reunified Egypt and heralded the early Middle Kingdom (Dynasties 9-11; ca. 2160-1985 BC), a time of unprecedented strong, centralized government. A sandstone head of Mentuhotep II from his funerary temple at Thebes clearly is meant to impress the role of the King in this newly unified Egypt; he wears both the white crown, a symbol of Upper Egypt, and the uraeus cobra, an emblem of royalty denoting his ability to "strike down" his enemies. Despite such formidable regalia, Mentuhotep's wide-eyed expression is open and youthful, serious without being stern.

The kings of the later Middle Kingdom (Dynasty 12; ca. 1985-1795 BC) moved their capital from Thebes in southern Egypt to Lisht in the north, thereby further solidifying their control over the country but also exposing them to the archaic art styles still prevalent in the northern regions, such as the sturdy muscularity evident in a depiction of Sesostris I. One of the most famous statues from the Egyptian collection of the British Museum, portrays King Sesostris III with a muscular, young physique but the somber, tight-lipped expression of a mature and weary monarch. This may reflect the notion that kings must be strong and forceful, but also bear a heavy burden of responsibility, as expressed in Middle Kingdom poems.

Fig.3: Shabti statuette of Ahmose, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1550-1525 BC (Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum).

After a time of decentralization, Egypt was again unified under the reign of King Ahmose, who expelled the foreign Hyksos from the land, thus beginning the New Kingdom. A small burial statue is one of only three extant figures known to depict this important king, and the only one that is complete (fig.3). Often considered the "imperial age"of Egypt, the New Kingdom is marked by the increasingly elaborate costumes and adornment of the elite, and the creation of sophisticated temples and burial monuments. The exhibit features several impressive "colossal" sculptures from the reign of Amenhotep III (ca. 1390-1352 B.C.). One is a red granite lion, originally from the Amenhotep III's temple at Soleb (but restored and reinscribed by King Tutankhamun), who sits in the relaxed, cross-legged pose of one assured in his power, probably reflecting the absolute rule of the king. A head of Amenhotep III himself, wearing the red crown of lower Egypt and the uraeus, has the same confident, serene expression-the face of a ruler who dared to proclaim himself a god on earth.

Fig.4: Papyrus with satyrical vignettes, New Kingdom, 19th or 20th Dynasty, ca. 1295-1069 BC (Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum).

Specific displays focus on the creativity and artistic heights achieved during the New Kingdom. Several objects provide information about the work of Egyptian artist/scribes. These include a scribal palette with depressions for reeds and pigments, several practice sketches, and a slab inked with the grid which served as the painter's guide. A papyrus shows several scenes, including one of a lion and antelope happily playing a board game (fig.4), while nearby a fox, hyena and wild cat herd goats and geese, which appear to satirize human nature and may be the earliest known political cartoon. Another whimsical piece is a cosmetic vessel held aloft by a young, nude woman (fig.5). A display of jewelry attests to Egyptian skills in goldworking, as well as the apatropaic powers ascribed to various animals and symbols.

Fig.5: Cosmetic vessel held by a girl, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1390-1352 BC (Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum).

Of course, no exhibit of Egyptian artifacts would be complete without mummy covers and other burial paraphernalia. A concept that is emphasized in Eternal Egypt is that a large proportion of Egyptian art was created to help the deceased live on in the afterworld. Coffin lids, for instance, were often covered in images of rebirth and eternal life, such as sun disks and scarab beetles. The dead were also richly arrayed on their journey to the afterworld, often covered in gold (fig.6). Shabtis (also called shawabti or ushabti) are small statuettes , usually only 4 to 9 inches in height, which are were placed in Egyptian tombs to serve as laborers for the deceased. Although holding the agricultural tools (hoe and seed basket) which symbolize her willingness to perform physical labor, and inscribed with a spell to impel her to work, a 19th Dynasty shabti of a woman with fashionably clinging gown, heavy kohl-painted eyes, "lipstick" and wig appears to be attired more for a night on the town than a day in the fields.

Fig.6: Mummy mask of Satdjehuty, cartonnage, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, ca. 1500 BC (Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum).

Art during the Third Intermediate (Dynasties 21-25; ca. 1069-656 BC) and early Late Period (Dynasties 25 and 26; ca. 716-525 BC) imitated the earlier styles, poses and costumes of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, although sometimes combining these in new ways. Such archaism, as seen in the standing figure of Tjayasetimu, attests to a deliberate attempt of later (often foreign) kings to associate themselves with early, golden ages of a unified Egypt.

Fig.7: Panel portrait of a woman, Roman Period, ca. AD 160-170 (Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum).

By the Ptolemaic period, Egypt was solidly part of the larger Hellenic world. Although much of Egyptian culture was "westernized," other traditions lived on. The Ptolemies were often depicted as pharoahs, a means of associating themselves with the long history of Egyptian rulers. Even during the Roman period, some of this essential "Egyptian" character was retained. The remains of the dead were still mummified, but in a far different manner than before, while the elaborate cartouches and gilded masks gave way to wooden panels painted with naturalistic portraits of the deceased (fig.7). As evident in the works on display in this exhibit, however, it the strong preservation of tradition that attracts us to the mystery of "eternal" Egypt.

Reviewed by Michele A. Miller

Other Museums to host this exhibit:

Toledo Museum of Art (March 2, 2001-May 27, 2001)

Wonders: The Memphis International Cultural Series (June 28-October 21, 2001)

Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City (April 12-July 2, 2002)

The Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco (August 10-November 3, 2002)

Minneapolis Institute of Art (December 22-March 16, 2003)

Field Museum, Chicago (April 26-August 10, 2003)

Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (September 21-January 4, 2004)

Athena Review Image Archive™   | Guide to Archaeology on the Internet   |   free trial issue |  subscribe  |  back issues

Main index of Athena Review   |   Subject Index   |   Travel Pages   |  Galleries and Museums  |  Ad rates |  Current issue index

Copyright  ©  1996-2003    Athena Publications, Inc.  (All Rights Reserved).