The Nelson-Atkins' exhibition of 144 objects from the British Museum provides an exciting arena in which to explore many questions, including: Why do we love what is old? The relics of ancient Egypt inspire awe undoubtedly because they were created by one of greatest civilizations of the world but perhaps also because they survived up to 5,000 years of tumultuous world history. Though Americans seem unable to tolerate age on faces of flesh, we love it on faces of stone and wood. Artifacts are loved for the beauty of their age. And if we have not yet learned to appreciate the mysteries that lie behind the faces of our elders, we at least understand that the more riddles we answer regarding the past, the more exotic the past becomes.
Each statue, jeweled bauble, papyrus scroll, and stele in Eternal Egypt is a vignette from a stranger's life, providing tantalizing glimpses into a long-vanished world. But the glimpses are obscured by the dust and winds of time. Although every object is beautiful in its timeworn incarnation, many look little like their original appearances, at least superficially. Thus, the viewer becomes acutely conscious of time and the slow, inexorable erasure of the past.
The small statue "A Royal (?) Woman" is the first artifact one encounters in the exhibition, and it sets up an internal question-and-answer dialogue that continues throughout the show. The young woman's exotic features and distinct sexuality are encased, so to speak, in a rigid symmetry that implies her human and spiritual natures. She is carved of Egyptian alabaster the color of pale flesh, and the museum's lighting illuminates a translucency in the stone so that the woman appears to be glowing from the inside out with ka, a life force the Egyptians believed survived the death of the body. A "skin" of paint and gold is thought to have originally adorned the finely polished statue, however.
When we think of ancient Egypt we tend to imagine a place with little color: the neutral tones of desert sand and stone. But the Nile Valley was a lush, verdant landscape, rich in gold and colorful minerals, including lapis lazuli, turquoise, carnelian, amethyst and jasper. Even the exoskeleton of the Egyptian scarab beetle refracts a shifting prism of hues. Thanks to improving technologies, art historians have a clearer view of ancient art and architecture (both exterior and interior), and the extinct Egyptian civilization is now rendered with a full spectrum. Even when the desert is depicted, it typically exists as a backdrop, much in the way the western desert must have existed for ancient Egyptians: the land of the dead.
Possibly, our faulty imaginations are fueled by exhibitions such as Eternal Egypt, where much color has eroded through the burgeoning centuries. The contrast between now and then is startling when we come upon a work still bearing more than a microscopic residue of paint. "Funerary Stela of Deniuenkhonsu," for example, is an astonishing painting on an arch of sycamore wood. According to the exhibition catalog, Deniuenkhonsu worships the ultimate sun god, Re-Harakhty-Atum, a composite of the main sun god Re, the rising sun god Harakhty, and the setting sun god Atum. Among them, cutting a green swath through the center of the piece, is a cornucopia of colorful offerings: lotus blossoms, duck, bread, lettuce and beer. The lasting richness of the greens, reds, pinks and blues attest both to the preservation and the intensity of the work's -- and the world's -- original palette.
Though the palette was derived from nature, the colors were symbolic, as were many of the images painted or carved alongside symbol-based hieroglyphics. As explained in the exhibition catalog, lapis lazuli represented "the protective night sky"; turquoise or green feldspar "imitated that of the Nile's life-bringing water"; carnelian was "the color of life's blood, green jasper of fresh vegetation, symbolizing new life"; gold "emulated the sun"; and silver, "rarer, so more highly prized, was linked with the moon."
Though almost a thousand years older, "The Nomarch's Sister," on painted limestone, must also have once been a wealth of jewel tones. Imagining this fragment as part of a freshly painted tomb or envisioning still-wet pigments on a 123-foot papyrus scroll or contemplating warm, newly forged gold cuff bracelets embedded with multicolored gems and glass transforms these artworks from a somber monument to death into a cheerful celebration of life -- or, perhaps more accurately, the afterlife.
Like contemporary Americans, Egyptians wanted to live forever, to rise from the dead not into heaven but to the very world from which they had just departed. Like Christians, they hoped to be "raised incorruptible," flaws omitted just as sculptors, painters and scribes left out physical blemishes. Most artists and artisans chose materials for their durability. Gold, for example, was preferred less for its rarity (it was plentiful in Egypt) than for its eternal qualities. It is therefore interesting to move among the colossal heads and miniature figures, the coffins, drawing tablets and jewelry, to witness each success or failure at achieving forever. Even more interesting is how these "failings" entice us precisely because of the ephemeral quality of paint, exposing surfaces both tactilely and visually provocative. The limestone "Stele of Neferhotep," with its carved hieroglyphs and low reliefs, begs to be interpreted by fingertips; the enormous red granite "Lion of Amenhotep III" reclines casually, as if awaiting the gentle stroke of a hand. But touching these relics is forbidden (as it should be to further preserve such valuable works of art) so a palpable understanding of these widely varied surfaces must also be left to the imagination.
Throughout the exhibit, viewers stand in the space between the mysterious past and the solid present. Perhaps we should also imagine the nebulous future, when our own civilization will be old, and then ask ourselves: What will we leave behind? Will it be beautiful? Will it make us want to live here again?