Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Egyptian phantoms (#ArtReview)

Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt at the Cleveland Museum of Art
By Christopher Alexander Gellert for love, -j.

As a boy, I wandered galleries lined with elaborate unearthed coffins -- dollhouse versions of chattel (human and material) to haul with you to the afterlife, the rows of stiff humorless shirtless martinets mid-stride, bedecked in serpentine headdress. I did not radiate the fascination of some of my schoolfellows. 

Picking my way through the Cleveland Museum of Art’s new exhibition, Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt, I felt like one of the cats on display: stony, indifferent, curious. Yet as I slinked through the galleries I surprised myself in wonder.

The show, organized with the British Museum and currently on display through June 12, contains admirable works of great beauty and remarkable craftsmanship. Seeing them through my adult eyes gave me a new understanding of my childhood disenchantment. One cannot escape that in this exhibition every great piece of sculpture, every fantastic monument, was built in the god-cult of a tyrant. The pharaoh's court, his pretended divinity, was the lodestone to Egyptian belief. We might remember that Egypt’s great monuments were immense mausoleums -- the entire culture revolved around a seemingly morbid fascination with life after death, and little concern for this one. It’s at these kinds of thoughts that one sympathizes with Mohammed crashing every idol in Mecca to pieces. But this impulse precludes us from enjoyment and appreciation of works of great power – we need not embrace them. And all of these same objections might be leveled with equal justice at Christian art.

And yet, we cannot approach art -- even ancient art -- as neutral apolitical relics. If art is an expression of culture, it will reflect the political and social realities of that culture. It’s not for nothing that the curators chose the title, Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt -- art in Egypt was pharaonic Art. Each of the 10 galleries is organized around a different aspect of court life and political theater. It reminds us that this art was used to enforce the political order, and instill faith and obedience.

The enforcement of eternal order has its parallel in the rigid orthodoxy of style. If so much of Egyptian art looks the same, we shouldn’t be surprised -- the Kingdom of Heaven is after all immutable, and if the face of the gods were to change that might implicitly provoke questions that were better not asked. (Though, with the advent of the Middle Kingdom the veneer had begun to crack under political instability, and fissures are observed in the art -- by the New Kingdom you encounter a degree of fluidity that would have been unthinkable in the old.) And from the doggerel tone individual pieces break out and astonish, and by very dint of their nature -- cracked, chipped and looted fragments -- they are incapable of fulfilling their initial purpose as propaganda, disarmed in carefully labeled glass vitrines. History has denuded them of their political import, and frees us to enjoy them as aesthetic objects, even if the shadow of their past hangs over them.

The massive Hathor capital that greets the visitor at the beginning of the exhibition speaks to us in the vulnerability etched across its face, its broken nose and bovine ears, full eyes -- its missing body, and yet even maimed it conjures awe at the civilization that erected it.

It is a loss I do not mourn, and yet I still cherish these shards.

Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt haunts us through June 12. An accompanying photography show (through May 24th) in the contemporary galleries peeks at the leporine reproduction of images of Ancient Egypt, its suffusion into our culture.

Photos courtesy of Christopher Alexander Gellert and the Cleveland Museum of Art.