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Art Review

Yes, shows of ancient Egyptian art are proven crowd-pleasers. But 'Pharaohs of the Sun' offers plenty of reasons to set aside the cynicism and be swept along by fascination.

Rays of Egyptian Might

March 21, 2000|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

If they could, every art museum in America would have on view--all day, every day--a "special" exhibition devoted to one of four topics: Impressionism, Van Gogh, Picasso or the art of ancient Egypt. There's no mystery as to why.

Shows of this work are the art museum's version of celebrity programming. Profitable, sure-fire events, they're guaranteed to draw crowds. Their appeal goes way beyond the art public, which tends to be small, and attracts the attention of a general audience.

Since September 1998 the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has pursued celebrity programming as aggressively as any museum in the nation. Shows of Impressionism, Picasso and Van Gogh have been offered so far. Sunday, the fourth in the standard celebrity quartet opened. The best has been saved for last.

"Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen" brings together several hundred objects, ranging from exceptional monumental sculptures to a mundane hand-forged needle, made more than 13 centuries before the birth of Jesus. While the two most, well, "celebrated" Egyptian objects from the period are not to be found in the galleries, the show does offer a solid introduction to one of the most fascinating episodes in the history of art.

Missing from "Pharaohs of the Sun" is the trademark bust of Queen Nefertiti, shown wearing her cylindrical blue crown. It's a prized possession of Berlin's Egyptian Museum, while plaster knockoffs are a favorite of cheesier suburban gift shops.

In an otherwise lovely lineup of four smaller busts of the important queen, who is depicted at different times of her life, the elegantly painted sculpture is certainly missed. Other significant loans have, in fact, come from the great Egyptian collection in Berlin, however, as well as from important museum collections in Cairo, Luxor, Boston and elsewhere.

The other missing celebrity item is the famous gold and inlaid burial mask of Tutankhamen. King Tut kicked off the modern phenomenon of the blockbuster museum exhibition more than two decades ago, when his reign was the subject of a pandemonium-inducing traveling show. (It came to LACMA.) The current show concludes with a modest selection of 22 sculptures and reliefs from Tut's era.

Tut's reign functions as a minor epilogue to the main story that unfolds in "Pharaohs of the Sun." The boy king restored to prominence the multitude of deities banished during the strange, remarkable rule of his likely parents, Akhenaten and Nefertiti. They had ushered in a relatively brief but extraordinary period, when one god--the sun god--ruled over all. It's that period, the Amarna period, that forms the centerpiece of the show.

What an amazing, arrogant, brilliant, ambitious and delusional man Akhenaten must have been. Think about it: For more than a thousand years dynastic Egypt had elaborated its religious rituals and array of gods, raising monumental temples and statues to their sustained glory. The consolidation of dynastic power was partly written in the remarkable degree of artistic continuity that ranges over art and architecture produced during scores of prior Pharaonic reigns.

Akhenaten had a different idea. He wiped nearly all of it away.

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Perhaps the urge was fueled by his father. Amenhotep III had a long, prosperous reign. His court style did retain the blocky, serene, remote look that signified eternal and unchanging bliss for Egypt; but the show also includes some carved portraits that depict him as a rather fat and sassy guy. This growing naturalism was matched, oddly enough, by Amenhotep's decision late in life to declare himself a living god.

That made his son and successor, Amenhotep IV, a son of god. Surely that does something to the ego. When his turn came, young Amenhotep IV decided there was only one true god--Aten, or "the light of the sun"--which he would duly worship. As son of the sun, he gave his subjects the honor of worshiping him.

Accordingly, he changed his name to Akhenaten. Together with his principal wife, the legendary beauty Nefertiti, he began a wholesale reformation of Egyptian style. The overhaul was essential, in order to reflect a cataclysmic cultural change. He radically differentiated his era from the past.

Forget about merely tampering with a thousand years' worth of existing temples, palaces, statues, monumental reliefs and such. He began with new temples at Karnak, where a colossal sandstone head of the pharaoh is elegant, ethereal, hyper-refined. (It's among the more mesmerizing objects in the show.) Practice over, Akhenaten started from scratch.

He moved the capital to an empty plain on the banks of the Nile, midway between Thebes and Memphis, at what is now called Amarna. (A huge scale-model of the city is at the center of the show.) The site afforded him a clean slate--literally an empty field, on which to raise a new city with a new style in which to worship a new god.

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