Thursday, February 7, 2013

Eternal Egypt

Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art from the British Museum
Edna R. Russmann
American Federation of Arts
ISBN: 1-885444-19-2

The book is an accompaniment to the British Museum's traveling exhibition of North America from March 2001- May 15, 2005. I saw the exhibition in Victoria, British Columbia on its last day Halloween 2004.

Curator Edna R. Russmann opens the book with an excellent overview of Egyptian art embedded with many large colorful and black and white images of Egyptian art from many museums including the wonderful painted limestone Fifth dynasty statue of Ny-Ka-Re and his family from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Miss Russmann is onto aspects of Egyptian art including portraiture, painting and the effects of archaism onto the subjects of those mediums with Boston's green head being a perfect example.

The following chapter is by the late great T.G.H. James who writes about the formation and growth of the British museum's Egyptian collection. The collection began in the eighteenth century but it is with the acquisition of the Rosette stone surrendered from the French in the treaty of Alexandria after the British defeat of Napoleon that the museum acquires its monumental piece.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, British Consul-general in Egypt Henry Salt and his remarkable agent Giovanni Belzoni helped the museum acquire a large number of its important sculpture and artifacts of all sorts. Mr. James chapter is accompanied by a number of etchings with my favorite being of the great hall at Boughton house where the museum's collection was kept during the early years of world war II.

The catalogue opens with (EA 37996), a statuette of a king carved in the round in ivory and dating to 3000 BC. The statuette was found by the great Flinders Petrie at the temple of Osiris at Abydos early in the last century. The three photo's in the catalogue cannot do justice that only standing in front of this little masterpiece can  it be fully appreciated as an exquisite piece of craftsmanship.

Nearby a small calcite statue of a woman (EA  24619), of the Old Kingdom is in a beautiful state of preservation though unfortunately possessing no provenance. The wooden statue of the seal bearer Tjetji (EA 29549), is impressive in its presence being rather large in comparison to the smaller statue of the same format found in the tomb of Meryrahashref (EA 55722), one of two of a number of sculptures found at the bottom of the shaft in Meryrahashref's tomb and in the exhibition.

Of the statue famed twentieth-century sculptor, Henry Moore said "What I admire about this statue is its tension. If you run your hands down the legs or across the shoulder blades you can feel the tautness and hardness of the muscles. The Egyptian sculptor has squeezed tense physical energy into the whole piece."

Passing rooms I find myself in front of the painted head of the Eleventh dynasty Theban King Mentuhotep II (EA 720), which  may be the ugliest thing ever created! Well, that might be harsh but I kept having the thought that it reminded me of a cheap plaster bust of Elvis, God rest his soul!

I walked right past the relief of Mentuhotep II being embraced by Montu (EA 1397), without noticing, it was not until I reached the end of the exhibition that I realized this and went back to find it figuring the reason I had missed it was because of how impressed I was by the nearby relief of a battle scene from Mentuhotep's mortuary temple. (EA 732).

A remarkable bust of Sesostris I in granodiorite with feldspar inclusions (EA 44), found by Richard W. H. Vyse at Karnak during his excavations between 1835-1837 is a singular example of the kings many sculptures created during his long reign. The block statue and niche stela of Sahathor (EA 560-570), I found to be fascinating in its style and condition but particularly in the painted decoration still surviving inside the niche.
From Arthribis comes a late Twelfth dynasty statue of a standing cloaked man in black granite (EA 1237), though sadly the statue is missing its feet and base which may have given his name. I spent much time standing in front of this most wonderful little statue, he pulled me in, certainly one of my favorite pieces in the exhibition.

The standing statue of King Sesostris III (EA 686), from the temple of Mentuhotep II at Deir el-Bahri is one of six found at the base of a platform from which they were pushed off in antiquity. The strength of the carving  is enhanced by the elegant nature of the stone from which the statues were carved together the power of the king is obvious, the kings thoughtful face balances perfectly to produce a figure of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Above the audience sat the colossal granite head of Amenemhet III (EA 1063), found at the entrance of the temple of Bastet at Bubastis missing its eye inlays the head has a ghostly quality to it. A series of trinkets, jewels, and statues pass by till I reached the small graywacke head of Thutmosis III (EA 986), wearing the white crown. The lovely head of the great ruler made me uncomfortable as it was displayed at the place where the head would have sat on its missing body which had me looking down at it.
Perhaps I should have been more impressed by the statue of Senenmut holding Princess Neferure (EA 174),  except that near was a very impressive display of the block statues of Inebny (EA 1131), Sennefer (EA 48) and Tety (EA 888), placed in a row from largest to smallest, I could sense the natural boulders from which they were carved as if they could have been carved by the Nile herself.

Soon I found myself in front of an eighteenth dynasty black granite head of a queen or goddess (EA 956), and completely fell in love, one of two ladies I fell in love with in the exhibition. The Eighteenth dynasty reign of Amenhotep III was an epoch of Egyptian art and the red granite lion (EA 2), from the temple of Soleb but found at Gebel Barkal is one such example.

The colossal quartzite head of the King Amenhotep III (EA 7), is most famous for the etching which depicts it being excavated from the kings mortuary temple early in the nineteenth century but on that day at the end of October it looked over the gallery above the crowd. The sweet little Eighteenth dynasty limestone statuette of Khaemwaset and Nebettawy (EA 51101), possess great charm as these little family statuettes usually do.

The fragmentary face of the heretic King Akhenaten (EA 13366), carved in indurated limestone and being only a little over six inches in height is a technical marvel that the stone could have been carved at all in the unstable crumbling rock. Even with so much damage, the viewer can still make out one of the great masterpieces of historical sculpture and for me, if I could have one piece from the exhibition it would be this head.

It is at this point that I knocked over my glass of water ruining my catalogue, sigh, the show must go on.!

On the next wet page, I find the famous painted limestone stela of Amenhotep III and Tiye (EA 57399), found a Tell el Amarna, a very lovely object indeed of fine quality. A series of scribal equipment and ostracon pass until I found myself in front of two wooden demons (EA 50703-50704), discovered in the tomb of King Horemheb in the Valley of Kings tomb KV57.

The demons are larger than I had imagined them to be and would certainly have inspired fear to an intruder in the king's tomb upon catching a glimpse of them in a flickering torch light.

The beautiful little glass Bolti-fish shaped scent bottle (EA 55193), found at Tell el-Amarna is hard to ignore for its technical mastery of its unusual medium. The show was not without humour being represented by a satirical papyrus (EA 10016/1), and a remarkable piece of faience (EA 48014), of animals engaged in human activities.

I guess for me the real shocker of the show was the partially gilded silver statuette of Amun (EA 60006), which from all pictures I have seen as a worthy figure to be worshiped.

Not true it looked cheap and wonky possessing no dignity, on the feathered headdress and solar disc the gilding has simply been slapped on and not burnished down to remove the wrinkles. A disappointment indeed! A number of gold elements follow including an earring of Queen Tawosret (EA 54459), found in Valley of Kings tomb KV56, probably the burial of a child of the queen.

Again the viewer is presented with more wooden statuettes of nobles (EA 2320, EA32772), this time of the New Kingdom for these are not the naked figures of the Old Kingdom or the lightly dressed occupants of the Middle Kingdom, the Egyptian noble is now dressed in all their finest pleated garments with large wigs.

At this point, a most beautiful Nineteenth dynasty lady (EA 37887), in black basalt came to my attention holding her sistrum which possessed no metal discs used to create the sound and left me wondering if the sculptor was implying the noble lady was mute? Either way, she was magnetic and I revisited her a number of times falling head over heals in love with her.

The delicate stela of Dier el-Medina Foreman on the right of the tomb Neferhotep (EA 1516), has King Amenhotep I and his wife Queen Ahmes Nofretari carved in raised relief while Neferhotep is in sunk relief. The king and queen were worshiped in Neferhotep's community of Deir el- Medina thus they are represented in a finer style than the foreman.

 A number of sumptuous papyrus pages of books of the dead*, including pages from the most famous of these books belonging to Ani are an impressive sight that ooze reverence and command presence. It was unmistakable as I entered the next gallery the notice that the people in the room formed a whirlpool in one corner of this room admiring a Roman period portrait panel of a beautiful woman (EA 65346).

The nearly foot long limestone shabti of King Ahmose (EA 32191), is the earliest known royal shabti and impressive at that but I was left asking why limestone I would have expected granite. wood, metal or even faience but not limestone?

A couple of red granite carvings from the temple of Bastet and dating to the reign of Osorkon II included a column capital (EA 1107), lovely but it is the block from the Sed festival gate (EA 1105), that really inspired me. Late period bronze statuettes* fill the space between the red granite blocks from the temple of Bastet at Bubastis to the gold bracelets of Prince Nimlot, (EA 14594-95), that were so small, so grand.
Wow the tomb stela of Psusennes (EA 642), from Abydos what an incredible and disrespectful attempt at placation of a god. The stela displays Psusennes making an offering of Maat to Osiris, Horus, and Isis though because Maat was a prerogative of royalty someone has removed the goddess and replaced her with an Isis knot. Worse yet Psusennes has been carved so that he is actually blocking Osiris a sacrilegious mistake for a mortal to block a god.

The scribal statue of Pas-Shuper (EA 1514), in brown quartzite of the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, comes to us from a two-thousand-year-old tradition of scribal statues beginning in Egypt's Fourth dynasty. The tradition here has resulted in an object with a presence of age and sophistication of line while the scribe still being compassionate and approachable.

In the striding figure of Tjayasetimu (EA 1682), from Egypt's late period we find a figure just over four feet tall and beautifully preserved so much so that as much as I admired it I could not help but question its authenticity. The limestone statue with traces of paint has no find spot and was bought for the museum in 1921.

The architectural slab of Nectanebo I (EA 22), found at Alexandria is a lovely fragment of a wall once erected at Heliopolis and what a dividing wall it must have been. The precision cutting of the rock is remarkable combined with the stones colour has produced an effect of opulence suitable for the home of the sun god.
Having said this I found myself drawn to the crude Greek inscription hacked into the destroyed cornice of cobra's on the more damaged side. I was later informed by Elizabeth R. O'Connell from the British Museum that the inscription was from a later reuse in the Roman period.

A greywacke head of a king, possibly Nectanebo I (EA 97), was a lovely object with an ancient repair to its nose that does not interfere with the kings obvious quality. Finally, for me a limestone relief of Ptolemy I making an offering to Hathor (EA 649), was the last beautiful artifact of the show.
What a wonderful day I had at the Eternal Egypt exhibition, before myself 145 works presented an evolution of ancient Egyptian art which very few museums could produce. The choices resulted in clear depictions in tastes and styles of 3000 years of art history. The development of which resulted in the adaptations of historical styles to produce contemporary images to meet the prerogatives of the ancient Egyptian people and the era's in which they lived and died along the Nile.

Pictures: The British Museum
Mask of Satdehuty EA 29770
* Books of the Dead: EA 9900/32, EA 10471/2, EA 10470/5, EA 10470/3, EA 10470/35, EA 10554/61, EA 10479/6
* Bronze Statuettes: EA 32747, EA 54388,
Show: Royal British Columbia Museum

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