When an exhibition of golden treasures from the tomb of Egypt's boy king toured the United States in the late 1970s, Tutankhamen was the rage. Thousands of people stood in line for hours to see the show, which established a new benchmark for museum blockbusters and permeated popular culture, thanks in part to comedian Steve Martin's hit ditty about the king.
Many people who saw the King Tut exhibition probably remember some of Martin's lyrics, "got a condo made a stone-a," more clearly than anything they viewed while being herded past the treasures. I caught the show in Chicago and can only recollect the guards urging us to keep moving and lots of glittering gold. Having taken part in the pop cultural phenomenon still seems worthwhile. But as a museum experience, which should have enchanted and enlightened the American public about the man, his times and Egyptian history and culture, King Tut was something of a washout.
There are only modest amounts of gold in "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, and little likelihood that the show will spawn a hit tune. But this meticulously organized, cleverly installed exhibition of more than 200 artworks is rich and rewarding in ways that its more illustrious predecessor was not.
Here, objects ranging from massive stone sarcophagi and elaborately decorated coffins to a tiny sculpture of a hippopotamus, its bright blue glaze painted with lotus flowers, vividly illuminate the marvels and mundane aspects of the culture that flourished along the Nile River thousands of years before the birth of Christ. The show's comprehensive examination of ancient Egypt's people, history and culture also serves as a powerful reminder of its seminal contributions to the development of Western culture.
In short, it dazzles visitors' eyes while stimulating their minds. The exhibition was organized by the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum; it has been touring the United States since 1996 while the museum in Hildesheim, Germany, constructs a building to house its superb collection. Before coming to Richmond, the show went to museums in St. Petersburg, Fla., Houston, Detroit, Portland, Ore., and Phoenix. It has been a box office hit in each town, drawing more than 100,000 visitors.
Occupying 16,000 square feet, the "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" is the largest exhibition every displayed by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Museum officials hope 200,000 visitors will see it before it closes Nov. 28.
Those visitors will be immersed in one of the world's oldest civilizations, which produced engineering wonders such as the Great Pyramids and also elevated embalming to an art form. Egypt's level of artistic accomplishment was so high that when it was finally conquered--first by the Greeks and then by the Romans--the invaders simply adopted the Egyptians' aesthetics and craftsmanship.
But the exhibit is much more than a routine tour of the ancient world's upper-crust and postcard glories. Where King Tut focused more on Egypt's rulers, "Splendors" provides a broader overview of ancient Egyptian life. Where Tut's treasures were exotic and alien, this exhibition's sculptures, wall carvings, jewelry, ceramics and other objects dating from 6,000 years ago to the 7th century A.D. are remarkably familiar, as if they were created to suit our contemporary aesthetic.
Which, in a sense, they were. For walking through the show quickly brings home the point that ancient Egypt was the birthplace of Western culture. The aesthetic developed by the Egyptians thousands of years ago--emphasizing beauty, symmetry, verisimilitude and clean, elegant lines--was passed on to the Greeks and the Romans and, after lying dormant for centuries, blossomed again in the Renaissance. When the Europeans came to America, they brought along Egypt's cultural lineage in ways obvious and hidden.
Like the ancient Egyptians, our society is fond of beauty, bread, beer, nice clothes, fine jewelry and cats. The linear narrative form one sees on the 18-foot-long papyrus scroll from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, one of the highlights of the exhibition, remains one of the basic building blocks of our culture, used to propel story lines in everything from the Sunday comics to serious literature. To remind posterity of our existence, we inscribe names on our gravestones. Ancient Egyptians might have found that practice rather modest compared with their custom of equipping the tomb with food, servants and anything else required for a comfortable afterlife, but they would understand the motivation.
The links between our art, particularly sculpture, and Egyptian art are also evident.
The most striking example of the continuity between contemporary culture and that of ancient Egypt is the 1 1/2-ton, life-size limestone tomb statue of "The Vizier Hem-iu-nu." Dating from the Old Kingdom, as the period between 2700 and 2200 B.C. is known, the statue is of a sitting man, facing the viewer. The man is so finely carved that he seems to be on the verge of movement. His broad, intelligent face and erect posture give him an air of calm, confidence and authority, indicating this was a person of substance. He is believed to have directed the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza and was also the nephew of King Cheops, who was buried in Giza.
"The sculpture is the only life-size statue of a private citizen from the time of King Cheops that has survived in such good condition," says Margaret Ellen Mayo, the Virginia Museum of Fine Art's curator of ancient art. "It is a great masterpiece from the Old Kingdom, a period of sculpture characterized by simplicity and elegance. To our visitors' eyes, Hem-iu-nu may seem lifelike and perhaps even contemporary in his impact."
He does indeed. Unfortunately, the statue will only be on view until mid-summer because it was promised to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for an exhibition. But as a replacement, the Met is loaning a large statue of Queen Hatshepsut (who ruled Egypt from 1473 to 1458 B.C.), one of the most important pieces from its Egyptian collection.
While the stone pieces are an imposing presence in the exhibition, the Egyptians revered beauty in all things, and much of ancient Egypt's story is told by smaller objects, such as the wooden "Model of a Plowman," which shows a farmer tilling the soil behind two oxen. The model is a crude but colorful depiction of daily life that was placed in a tomb to provide the deceased with farm labor in the next life. On a more refined level, the society's highly skilled craftsmen created precise, exquisite objects from metal, stone, clay and wood. Whether they were making a sarcophagus, a textile wall hanging or capturing feline grace in "Cat With Kittens" (a bronze from about 600-500 B.C.), these anonymous artists used simple, elegant lines and subtle, lyrical symmetry.
The "Royal Jewels" are another example. The two bracelets and a necklace made from gold and semi-precious stones such as lapis lazuli, turquoise and carnelian are delicately wrought masterpieces in which the colors, red, blue and gold, are in perfect harmony.
The pieces date to the New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, from 1450 B.C. Yet they wouldn't look out of place in a posh Washington jewelry store. The level of design and craftsmanship may have been equaled since those objects were made, but it has not been surpassed.
Most of the objects in the exhibition were found in graves and tombs during the late 19th and early 20th century by excavators such as Hermann Junker, who found the statue of Hem-iu-nu in 1912. When Junker found it, the head of the statue had been smashed by grave robbers who stole its inlaid eyes. Whether Junker and others like him were merely more educated grave robbers is debatable. But the Egyptian authorities allowed the statue to be exported Germany, where the head was reconstructed and reattached.
There is no dispute that the Egyptian tombs and graves have provided a very detailed record of what daily life was like in ancient times. Cookware, utensils, jewelry and other items were stacked in the graves for the deceased to use in the afterlife. Many of the objects were decorated with scenes depicting the daily lives of Egyptian men and women. The hieroglyphics inscribed in some tombs also describe life in ancient Egypt.
In his illuminating guidebook to "Splendors of Ancient Egypt," William H. Peck, the curator of ancient art at the Detroit Institute of Arts, explains how Egyptian society was a pyramid-shaped hierarchy, with a small, wealthy ruling class at the top controlling the government and military, and a broad strata of peasants at the bottom providing the labor. Most people lived in houses of two or three rooms of unbaked bricks that were made from mud of the Nile River bottom. The working class dressed simply, with men wearing kilts or loincloths and women simple shifts. Most garments were linen. The average diet was plain but nutritionally varied, including vegetables, fruit, meat and fowl. According to tomb inscriptions, Egyptians also consumed massive quantities of bread and beer.
Because the ancient Egyptians practiced mummification and filled their tombs with objects and artifacts, some archaeologists in the early 20th century portrayed the society as obsessed with death. That notion survives, particularly in pop culture, as movies like "The Mummy" attest. But according to Peck, it simply isn't true.
"If there is one thing I hope people understand after they go through the exhibition, it's that the ancient Egyptians weren't obsessed with death, but with life," he says. "The tombs are loaded with everything one would need to have a good time in the next life, including people to do the work for you. The Egyptians weren't worrying about the end of their earthly existence. They were looking ahead to the next one."
CAPTION: A wood gesso carving of Anubis from the 3rd century B.C., and limestone canopic jars from one or two centuries earlier are part of the Richmond show.
CAPTION: "The Scribe Heti," painted limestone, circa 2300 B.C.
CAPTION: "The Vizier Hem-iu-nu," a life-size tomb statue dating from the Old Kingdom--the period between 2700 and 2200 B.C.
CAPTION: The sarcophagus of Amen-em-opet, a military commander, indicated his rank in society with the lavish use of gold. It is among the 200 artworks and artifacts on loan from the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany.
CAPTION: The painted wood "Model of a Plowman," circa 2000 B.C., had been placed in a tomb to provide the deceased with farm labor in the next life. Left, man's best friend in the form of an ivory game piece.