Show Me the Mummy!

Phoenix Art Museum unwraps crowd-pleasing "Splendors of Ancient Egypt"

Great art from past civilizations always seems to contain more future than past. Some of that might be because of the money and grandiose faith we cast in the direction of old treasures and the cliche of "art for the ages." Yet you can trace much of the verve in the works of the Phoenix Art Museum's exhibition "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" to their visual clarity and the fact that the conventions that guided the craftsmen who made them were so thoroughly resolved in their own day that they'll go on resonating with civilizations long after ours. Still, the interpretations and reassessments continue.

In slightly more than a century--a relatively short span given the 5,000 years that some of these objects have been around--the works in this show have evolved from tomb furnishings to the stuff of museum blockbusters. Their tables have been turned. Instead of watching over a mummy's eternity, as they were designed to do, they've become the guarded and gawked-at.

During their six-month stay at PAM, the 225 examples of mummy masks, wall reliefs, sculptures, pottery, jewelry and--yes--real, dead mummies are expected to draw more than a quarter of a million people, repeating the success they had in Houston, Portland and other cities where they toured in the past year and a half. Seventy thousand of those visitors will be schoolkids. The $2 million spent by PAM for the show, which was organized by the Florida International Museum from the collection of the Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany, is more than 10 times what the museum's operating budget was 10 years ago.

The temptation to weigh and count the value of this show in dollars, years, size and stone tonnage doesn't end there. Museum handouts and the audio tour tell us that the granite sarcophagus of Kai-em-nofret, carved from a single block of red granite, weighs in at more than 6,000 pounds. The beautiful limestone sculpture of Hem-iu-nu tips the scales at half a ton--he looks chubbier. The papyrus scroll from the Book of the Dead is 18 feet long. Not to mention the jewelry in gold, turquoise and lapis lazuli.

For every 1,000 people who are thrilled by the idea that PAM has landed such a big fish, there is a cranky handful of others who wish the museum would mount a major exhibition of real art--something tough and unpredictable enough to pare the culturati from the merely curious. In recent weeks, some smart people have expressed surprising indifference about the show to me, the common quip being that everyone likes to walk like an Egyptian. The stuff is guaranteed to be good and the crowds big, so why bother?

I feel their pain.
Since 1922, when archaeologists Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon cracked open Tutankhamen's tomb, whose chief value was that it hadn't been looted by grave robbers, the real curse of Tut has been the unavoidable mania to turn cultural treasures into spectacles. The "King Tut" extravaganza exhibition of the 1970s proved that Egyptian and other kinds of museum blockbusters attract the audiences that American museums need to prosper. In fact, the promise of getting the kinds of large exhibitions that "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" represents was among the chief reasons Phoenix voters approved the use of public funds in 1988 to expand and improve PAM.

Still, the glare, crowds and pomp surrounding shows like this one can easily obscure the real reason people ought to clamor to see it and applaud PAM for bringing it here. Aside from the sheer magnificence of the sculptures of "The Vizier Hem-iu-nu," "The Scribe Heti," the ghostly fragments of the "Head of Chephren" and the chillingly serene wax portrait of the Roman-era mummy, "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" is packed with large and small insights about the artistic conventions that governed the portrayal of Egypt's values and sense of the real. Egyptian art was hardly as plain as it sometimes seems in this show. Most of the bare, stony surfaces of the works were originally charged with the brilliant colors seen painted on the exhibition's several examples of head coverings and masks for mummies.

The art was driven by idealizations and hierarchies. The images have a degree of standardization that oddly echoes that of our own industrial products. Yet their social story is far from a modern egalitarian tale. Virtually all of the show's works came from the tombs of Egyptian royalty and other swells. So their view--the only one that has survived from those ancient days--comes from the top.

Egyptian society mimicked the shape of a pyramid. Rigid social stratification ensured a massive base of peasants, slaves and others who toiled to prop a lucky and powerful few at the top.

This stratification is a central message of the art. It takes the form of highly stylized, even stiff, poses. In three-dimensional works such as the funerary statues of "Iru-ka-ptah and his Wife," you get the classic man/woman pose of the woman with feet passively together and arms at her side and the man with his left foot forward and hands clenched around what appear to be the ends of poles or rods.

There are slightly different rules at play in two-dimensional images and reliefs, which contain an abundance of scenes similar to the one in the relief carving of servants bringing offerings to the statue of Sesh-em-nefer IV (illustrated above) and other depictions of the have-nots stocking the after-life larder of the haves. Almost all of them have the brilliant efficiency of children's drawings, where differing sizes and vantage points are combined to convey as much information as possible about the subject. Living people appear with their heads and legs in profile but torsos seen from the front. That isn't to say the artists were childlike, just that they used a stunning array of symbols and visual conventions.

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