When the Frist Center opened, Nashville art lovers hoped it would bring both major exhibits and lots of art-curious visitors to the area. It’s impossible to know for sure which show will have that kind of impact, but Egyptian art is always a good bet. Early on, the Frist Center lined up a prize catch: a collection of major objects from one of Egypt’s leading museums. After years of planning, that show has finally arrived.
Organized by the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the show pulls together 107 objects—tiny gold figures to massive stone sculptures, plus the re-creation of a Pharaonic tomb that gives some sense of Egyptian art in context—from the Cairo collection. The time period covers 1550 BCE to the Roman era, but the exhibit focuses enough on certain periods (particularly the reign of Thutmose III, 1479-1425 BCE) and sites (like the royal tombs of Tanis) to provide coherence as well as breadth. Many of the items in the show are important examples of their kind, reproduced in surveys of Egyptian art, and demonstrate the reason these pieces continues to fascinate audiences and influence artists today.
The Egyptian art that has survived is largely related to the culture’s religious and funerary practices, particularly regarding their elaborate beliefs about an afterlife with conditions that parallel earthly existence. People were buried with objects that stood in for what they would need in their resurrected state—servants, farmers, furniture, boats, etc. And as anyone who watches movies knows, the Egyptians preserved the bodies of the dead through mummification, housed in coffins and sarcophagi sealed into the tombs. In addition to funerary art, works that survive played a role in projecting the image of the pharaoh and other leaders as embodiments of absolute state and religious authority. For the pharaoh himself (or herself), personal power contained an element of divinity, and art surrounding the pharaohs used visual elements to show their divine nature.
Objects from ancient Egypt have an unmatched capacity to dazzle viewers. First of all, there is gold—seemingly endless amounts of the stuff, covering the dead and reflecting the belief that gold was the “flesh of the gods.” Burying someone with a gold funeral mask either symbolized this future state or supposedly helped them enter into it. The Frist show uses as its signature a funerary mask for Wenudjebauendjed, a courtier in the 11th century BCE. The gold seems thick and lustrous, reminiscent of what is probably the most iconic piece of Egyptian art, Tutankhamun’s burial mask. This is not a death mask, but shows the nobleman in a youthful and beautiful condition such as he would expect in rebirth. The exhibit also contains many sculptures of pharaohs, nobles, court figures and priests as well as relief carvings and paintings on stone and wood. These pieces have the characteristics we associate with Egypt—sculptures with careful detail and stiff poses, paintings of rows of figures in side perspective.
Egyptian art appears in textbooks at the beginning of Western art, right after the cave paintings in Lascaux. While technically accomplished, the aesthetics of Egyptian art largely lost out to the naturalism of the Greeks in influencing the course of art in Europe. The Egyptians were concerned with embodying signature qualities of subjects in a schematic way. Gods were defined by their features and poses; more important and powerful human figures were larger than less important ones. Unlike the Greeks, Egyptian artists did not record what they observed, instead reproducing the characteristics that would allow society to correctly identify their subject, the same way the strokes in a writing system indicate a specific word or sound.
If Egyptian art seems distant from the core of Western art history, it reemerged as an influence in the contemporary era. The art object’s scale relative to the viewer, for example, a defining characteristic of much Egyptian sculpture, occupies a central place in Minimalism. The similarities become very clear in massive earth-art projects like James Turrell’s Roden Crater and Michael Heizer’s “City” in Nevada. These projects involve moving massive amounts of material and have no clearer precursor than the great Egyptian desert temple and tomb complexes.
While the Egyptian Museum couldn’t exactly ship the Great Sphinx of Giza to Nashville, the exhibit contains reminders of the immense scale of some Egyptian work. One of the first objects viewers encounter is an elegant head of Ramesses II in pink granite, part of a statue that stood 22 feet tall. There is also a granite sarcophagus lid made for the daughter of a pharaoh that weighs in at almost four tons.
Egyptian art also dazzles with its complexity of detail. Everything seems covered in hieroglyphs, which run down the corners of statues, line the walls of tombs and densely pack the surface of coffins. Thanks to Jean-François Champollion’s translation of the Rosetta Stone in 1822, contemporary scholars can decipher the symbols, but everyone else can simply find themselves in a world awash with evocative markings. Since hieroglyphic writing consists of more or less stylized pictures of recognizable objects, the difference between text and pictures is difficult to discern. The wood coffin of a priest named Paduamen, for instance, features a painting of the priest staring with the typically serene look of Egyptians facing the afterlife, framed by a thick wig. The surface is covered with symbols—of Nut, the sky goddess, spreading her wings in protection, scenes of the gods and inscriptions crossing horizontally and vertically. Everything is a picture and everything is a word. It’s as if all words in English were like “snake,” where the first letter has a shape we associate with the reptile and its sibilant pronunciation reminds us of a snake’s hissing. For most words in English and other Western languages, such correspondences are accidental and rare. In Egypt, people were immersed in a convergence of shape, character and sound. There was little if any difference between literary and visual art.
Even sculptures become three-dimensional hieroglyphs. Just like the pictures, they contain specific features that allowed people to identify the God or person, and each attribute was meant to be read. A sphinx in this show combines the attributes of a lion with the facial features of Thutmose III, associating the lion’s strength with the pharaoh, who led major military campaigns and is known in history as the Napoleon of Egypt. The head of Ramesses II has the conical headdress of Osiris, allowing viewers of the day to make a connection between the god and their divine leader.
The convergence of literature and visual art is the most profound way that Egyptian art differs from Western art. Its strange gods and defining characteristics are foreign to us. Scholarship has clarified much of the meaning, but for most people the art’s value may lie in its capacity to create zones of strangeness in which the imagination can thrive. Egypt has always been on Europe’s doorstep. Unlike America’s Anasazi, its people and cities never died away; their ancient culture just integrated with the Romans and later with the Arabic and Ottoman waves that washed over the world. The old religion and gods left traces behind that remain a source of mystery close at hand.