Show Me the Mummy!

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

Cobras hooded at the brow distinguished their hosts as kings. And, as it is in nowadays Washington, D.C., big hair generally meant big player, with all manner of braids and harder-to-name coifs helmeting the royal heads. And then there are the beards. Straight ones signified living kings. Elongated ones in the general shape of a field-hockey stick identified kings who were transformed by death into gods.

The sophisticated way in which Egyptian artists and craftsmen combined symbols and images suggests a near-modern outlook. The limitations of carving in stone or painting on surfaces didn't allow the layering of information that modern technology permits. Yet they were extraordinarily gifted at shifting between the conceptual logic of symbols and the visual logic of actual space--a dichotomy that has played itself out in our own time in the differences between DOS and Mac-based computer systems.

One of the most interesting examples of that is the relief depicted above. The carving isn't nearly as refined as that of some others in the show. But the image reveals a good deal about the ancient-Egyptian conventions governing the representation of art and the living.

The clues are in the appearance of the people. The servants have the typical mixed perspective. But the larger figure, to the left, doesn't. He appears entirely in profile, with the odd exception of an awkwardly done arm that looks as if it's been drawn from the front and pinned to the side of the torso. Except for the arm--a mistake or an effort to make sure it could be identified as an arm?--the statue appears as it actually might have been seen from the side. It is both a symbol and an actual thing.

There's a lifelike informality and ease in the appearances of some of the nonsacred animals. There's a beautiful rabbit in the relief "The Deified King Tutmosis I." And jewel-like animal heads appear in the "Offering of Iunu." And the sculpture of a cat nursing kittens has a sharpness and warmth that lies closer to life itself.

But, as mentioned earlier, that wasn't the point of most of the works. They weren't reporting events of the day. They were illustrating the safe and secure eternity to come.

Yet Egyptian art was hardly static. The exhibition spans works that were done two and three millennia before Christ up through the 300 to 30 B.C. years of the Greeks and the 30 B.C. to 395 AD years of the Romans. In that arc, you can see the gradual, dramatic impact that Greco-Roman conventions about realism had on Egyptian art.

Then it's back to our own reality. The last gallery empties into "The Art of Our Time" gallery, which for the next six months will serve as an "Egyptian Marketplace" of miniature versions of sculptures in the show, plus the usual collection of theme paraphernalia more likely destined for landfills than tombs.

Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: elebow@newtimes.com

"Splendors of Ancient Egypt" continues through March 28, 1999, at the Phoenix Art Museum, 1625 North Central. Admission for nonmembers: adults, $12, children, $6. For exhibit hours and more information: 257-1880, www.phxart.org

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