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ART REVIEW : A Mesmerizing Discovery

March 24, 1994|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1789, annexing a lot of real estate and some 40 centuries of history. He opened the ancient civilization to the amenities of imperialist Europe, its arrogant self-assurance and casual cultural plundering. The news was not all bad. Science and scholarship arrived in due course. Soon they were armed with a curious new gadget that only shot people in the figurative sense. The camera.

Now the Santa Barbara Museum of Art is presenting a mesmerizing record of that encounter. "Excursions Along the Nile: The Photographic Discovery of Ancient Egypt" includes more than 100 pictures recording the look of the land during the second half of the 19th Century.

Subjects range from ghostly specters of native people like Pierre Tremaux's "Nubian Woman" and Francis Frith's crisply classic glass negative panoramas to an anonymous portrait of the mummified head of Ramses II.

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Just studying the images induces an aesthetic sensation that makes this ensemble a collective artwork in itself. To us, a 150-year-old photograph seems an ancient artifact. When that artifact records a stone sphinx carved nearly 5,000 years ago or the remains of a 2,000-year-old pharaoh, one's sense of time dissolves into absurdity.

Shelley waxed ironic over the vanity and futility of the pharaoh's lust for power and immortality in his poem "Ozymandias," inspired by the image of one of these ancient ruins. We are obliged to realize that the ruin will outlast its photographic record, our form of cultural mummification. Theirs was better but these pictures seem to say neither matters except as part of the magnificently silly spectacle of human striving.

Finally these images, taken together, broadcast a kind of empty cosmic calm. They invite a state of permanent meditation. Since that's anathema in this culture it's probably a good thing we have the exhibition's catalogue to snap us out of it.

The show originated at the museum, organized by curator Karen Sinsheimer, and derives entirely from the collection of Michael G. Wilson. It is scheduled to travel to museums in Baltimore, Ottawa and Kansas City.

The Santa Barbara museum has particular reason to be proud of it, the fully illustrated catalogue and an especially fine essay by Kathleen Stewart Howe. Scholarly and readable, informative and ironically amused even at its own whiffs of political correctness, it's a model of good humored detachment.

It traces these images and the 30 photographers represented through two large phases. The first found Maxime Du Camp, John Beasley Greene and Felix Teynard making salt prints from paper negatives. Slightly soft in focus and printed in subtle tints, they give an eerie stillness to subjects like the Temple of Karnak at Thebes.

Early practitioners were likely to be gentleman amateurs with authentic archeological curiosity. French explorers, including Gustave Flaubert, tended to be romantics in search of the kind of exoticism they'd seen in the imaginings of salon painters like Gerome.

British pilgrims, affected by a revivalist trend back home, came in search of biblical associations. Frith was the prime example. At 32, he'd cornered the market in Greek raisins and retired to a life of leisure. Some leisure. He tramped around Egypt with three huge cameras and a stuffed crocodile making his carefully staged glass negatives in heat up to 110 degrees.

Publications resulting from these adventures were a huge success back home among Victorian burghers who could ill afford the pricey and often arduous trip. They were enchanted by images of a narrow Cairo street and mosque by James Robertson and Felix Beato or the mysterious and massive columns of the temple at Edfu as seen by Louis de Clercq. Stereopticon versions were even more thrilling.

The first Egypt craze was under way. Photography leaned away from the scientific and toward the touristy. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 coincided with the first package tour offered by Thomas Cook. A high-minded temperance operation, the travel bureau made it possible for middle-class citizens--including single women--to see the enchanted land, all to the profound annoyance of the carriage trade.

A growing cadre of commercial photographers didn't mind a bit. There was gold in them there rubes. Lensmen like J. Pascal Sebah, Carlo Naya and Otto Schoefft staged pictures of Egyptians to appeal to tourists' stereotypes--veiled women to evoke fantasies of harems, a glassy-eyed smoker suggesting a hashish addict. The yarn-spinners, dung-sellers and rug merchants were all paid models.

Did the tourists notice the disparity between their real experience and these trumped-up pictures?

Apparently not. Apparently then as now tourists wanted to see their dreams, not messy reality. Real life in Egypt was so distasteful to most Europeans that Cook and colleagues soon cushioned and herded their clients into a pattern as artificial as a theme park.

In the end, the tourists' Egypt remained as fictional as the photographs they so eagerly collected.

* Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., through April 24, closed Mondays, (805) 963-4364.

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