Chip Off the Old Blockbuster
When I told a neighbor last week that I was going to the King Tut exhibition, a look of relief came over her face. "Oh, gosh, I thought I missed it," she said. "I thought it had come and gone." This was the day before the show opened.
That overbearing drumbeat announcing the imminent arrival of "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," now at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, has been so insistent recently from newspaper supplements and posters to whimsical little features on local television news that a lot of people probably think Tut has been in town for months.
Well, finally, here's the real deal. The Boy King has arrived in a manner of speaking. Of course, the mummy of Tutankhamun, discovered in 1922 in a burial chamber near Luxor, Egypt, remains in its home country, as does Tut's elaborate gold-plated sarcophagus (three "nested" coffins within four "nested" shrines, each element fitting snugly within a larger version of itself). But 50 burial objects are now on display at the museum, as well as 70 objects from other tombs and a nifty video reproduction of the grimacing mummy, revealing itself on a flat, bed-like screen with an accompaniment of spine-tingling movie music. You get from all of this a taste of what it was like in the Egypt of 3,500 years ago.
The exhibition is shamelessly overpriced (top tickets are $30) and, let's face it, a little on the skimpy side (there are more than 5,000 artifacts from Tut's tomb, meaning we get a measly 1 percent for our money). But you can't argue with the show's artistic merit. The anonymous Egyptian sculptors and goldsmiths who created the objects to facilitate the young pharaoh's passage to the Other Side were great artists.
Ancient Egypt was a harsh desert world, full of threats to its human denizens, from snakes, scorpions, floods, and famines to wars and violent internecine rivalries, to say nothing of all the things that could go wrong after death. Demigods often part human and part animal were there to be summoned to keep the sun coursing across the sky or to serve as protection against worldly dangers or to assure the safe passage of a king to heaven. Their depictions, in one striking work of art after another, are a major part of the Tutankhamun show.
Here, for example, is a striking, 18-inch, gilded, wood statuette of Horus the Elder, with a long, tight-fitting tunic, folded arms, straight Cleopatra tresses, and the face of a falcon. Horus, according to a book written to accompany the show by Egypt's antiquities czar, Zahi Hawass, is "a sky god linked with the ascension of the king to the stars." The statuette's creator has given him a short, predatory beak, sharply focused eyes, and a remarkable spark of life.
There are the carved heads of cow goddesses, one of them leaving the graceful wood grain exposed, like fur markings. Lanky panthers are caught midstride, one statuette panther carrying a king on his back, representing the feline goddess Mafdet, who provided protection against predators in the underworld. There's a winged sphinx, carved on a gilded ceremonial shield, dispassionately trampling Nubian warriors underfoot, and a carved wood serpent goddess, its wings stretched protectively forward.
And there are dozens of images of Tut himself in various incarnations, doe-eyed, visionary, emanating a vast calm (though one museum official noted that CAT scans of the mummy had shown the poor kid to have had, in the flesh, "a terrible overbite and a receding chin").
You begin to understand the excitement of the archaeologists who broke into Tut's tomb 83 years ago. Each work contains a creative spark that seems to reach miraculously across the millennia to bring these images to life.
Take extra time to look at a small, gilded shrine and a gilded shield, each inscribed with remarkable miniature depictions of the pharaohs. The shield shows scenes from an ostrich hunt, with an archer/charioteer in hot pursuit, a leaping hunting dog, and a wounded bird, looking back in fear and pain. The pictures, probably etched with a stylus, are rendered with remarkable confidence of line. There was no eraser, I think, to correct mistakes in gold foil.
The exhibition has been arranged in a series of chambers, some of them darkened, with theatrical spotlights and otherworldly music for dramatic effect. We're given glimpses of daily life, religious beliefs, the implements that a pharaoh would need in the afterlife (from a turquoise headrest to an unguent spoon in the shape of a swimming nymph), and the tomb (where, according to an illustrated diagram, its artifacts were discovered jammed into several small rooms, like old furniture in your grandmother's attic).
The idea was to impose a kind of narrative on the exhibition and to give the show a you-are-there quality, though, with its spare representation of actual objects from the tomb, I found myself not quite transported.
The Museum of Art has become, under Irvin Lippman, its director since 2003, a blockbuster museum. Previous high-profile installations were the Treasures of the Vatican (again, a stingy set of treasures loaned from a huge collection) and the Princess Diana show (including that voluminously ugly wedding dress). With "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," we get another modestly elegant chip off the old blockbuster.
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