Visions of Egypt review – how can this show be so devoid of ancient wonders?

Visions of Egypt is a broken blockbuster. He argues that modern racism towards Egypt began with the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. AD, when Octavian defeated Marc Antony and his lover Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt, and annexed it. The Romans plundered the art of Egypt, “demonized” its queen, and “laid the foundation for Western perceptions…which persist to this day.”

But to claim that ancient Rome still influences perceptions of Egypt is just bad news. It ignores the complexities, changes and contradictions of such a long period of time. Anyway, why not start with ancient Greece, which borrowed the art of Egypt in the Kouroi statues, while Herodotus saw it as another mysterious and exotic? By packing 2,000 years into an unbroken wall of Western prejudice, this show kills the art it clearly doesn’t like. Surely it’s obvious that when, say, Andy Warhol portrayed Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra and Kenneth Williams assaulted him in Carry On Cleo, they were talking about the 1960s, not the first century BC? Not that they’re in this show, which instead combines Victorian art and contemporary so-so work to make its tenuous point about Cleopatra.

Pastimes in Ancient Egypt by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1864. Photography: Walter White/Harris Museum & Art Gallery

There are gems here, but they all go against the thesis of the exhibit. A Roman-era depiction of Emperor Diocletian worshiping a mummified bull dressed as a pharaoh shows the interplay of cultures. And a Roman portrait of a boy that was placed on his mummy shows a creative blend of Egyptian ritual and Roman artistic realism.

The romantic architect Sir John Soane is one of those Egyptomaniacs who escape the simplicities of the spectacle. In a design by his architectural office, he clearly explains why he preferred the “sublime” art of Egypt to European classicism. Simply by juxtaposing St Paul and the Great Pyramid in an architectural drawing, Soane shows how the majesty of the ancient Egyptian structure eclipses Wren’s Cathedral.

Canopic jar by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, circa 1790. Photography: Kevin Percival/Victoria and Albert Museum

Yet Soane’s intoxicating studies of Egyptian architecture are shown in a small, dry alcove, set against a highly abstract “context” of growing European imperialism. Across the hall is one of the strangest books in the world, the enormous Description of Egypt, which Napoleon ordered from the team of scholars he took with him when he invaded what was then part of the Ottoman Empire in 1798. Napoleon was not yet emperor. but was already thinking imperialist – and with a romantic sense of history. “From the top of these pyramids, 40 centuries gaze upon you,” he told his troops.

The devil is in the detail. If this show explored such stories in depth, it would have a lot more to say about the entanglement of archeology and empire than it does with its inchoative rage. Cultural theorist Edward Said argued in his book Orientalism that Napoleon’s cultural project constructed “the orient” as something to be “knew” and therefore controlled by European empires. If only this exhibition followed his subtle analysis. There’s a ridiculous expression of Victorian Orientalism here: a painting by Edwin Long titled The Gods and Their Makers which anachronistically shows women in a harem doing the little Shabti figures found in Egyptian tombs. It’s pure Victorian fantasy – including a black servant assisting the startlingly pale “Egyptian” women.

Egyptian head disappearing in descending clouds by David Hockney, 1961.
Egyptian head disappearing in descending clouds by David Hockney, 1961. Photography: © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

The vulgarity of this painting matches the bandaged horror stories of Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle, as archeology inspired increasingly grim images of Egypt. There’s no weirder example of Western Egyptomania than Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, a movie theater built as an exaggerated recreation of an Egyptian temple in 1922, the year Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered by Howard Carter. Why isn’t Hollywood properly covered? The mummy horror genre is barely touched upon, with an early edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lot 249 tale and a somewhat silly video by Sara Sallam titled You Died Again on Screen. “Two hundred years of theater and cinema have cemented mummies as figures of horror and evil in Western popular culture,” the caption reads with a chastising note.

However, ironically, the archaeologist Howard Carter, often vilified as a colonial Indiana Jones, reveals himself here as a sensitive artist. His 1908 watercolor of a hoopoe perched in a tomb, apparently protected by a mural of a vulture goddess, expresses a passion and admiration for ancient Egypt which is only a breath away from worshiping its gods. . This exhibition wants us to stop our love affair with this lost world, but it cannot.

At the Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, until January 1

. Review Visions Egypt how show can be bereft wonders ancient Art

. Visions Egypt review show devoid ancient wonders

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