Eygpt's Glory American Finds Are Stars of Show

Article excerpt

Splendor of the Pharaohs:

American Discoveries in Ancient Egypt

Where: St. Louis Art Museum, Special Exhibition Galleries

Hours: Tuesday, 1:30-8:30 p.m.; Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., through May 27

Tickets: Adults, $5; seniors and students, $4; children (6-12) $3; under 6, free. Members free at all times; free to all on Tuesdays

Also: There is an audio tour for $3 more.

TO construct an exhibition that sets forth about 5,000 years of art representing two extraordinary cultures while explaining, simultaneously, how a modern republic contributed to its exploration and investigation, is an ambitious project indeed.

A show the St. Louis Art Museum imported from Los Angeles doesn't quite fill the order. Too big a block of time, too broad a subject, too few heart-stopping objects - all those factors undermine the worthy designs of the show's organizers and presenters.

It was originally called "The American - Discovery of Ancient Egypt," but that name suggested that perhaps Meriwether Lewis and William Clark paddled into Alexandria. Renamed "Splendor of the Pharaohs - American Discoveries in Ancient Egypt," it doesn't thoroughly satisfy its advertised intentions of surveying ancient Egyptian and Nubian art and architecture, while at the same time pumping up America's reputation for reclaiming antiquities and history from their burial places in the sands.

All that said, one shouldn't stay away from the show. As Howard Carter (discoverer of the Tomb of Tutankhamun) said, "wonderful things" are to be found at the museum, and along with them, monumental landscapes of ideas to be explored.

Kings were more than terrestrial rulers in ancient Egypt and were endowed with considerable more holiness than the anointeds of God we are familiar with in certain European dynastic traditions. Pharaohs often were considered gods, and representations of them were used in public and private devotions.

A statuette of a king, probably the New Kingdom ruler and religious reformer Akhenaten, who ruled from about 1353 to 1335 B.C., is one of the most engaging objects in the exhibition.

The statuette has survived with its painted decoration intact. But more important is the fact that it registers real personality. After looking at it, you have a sense not only of what this king looked like and how he carried himself, but also who he was and why he commanded attention.

There is also an appealing simplicity to this little king, and such simplicity is one of many qualities of Egyptian art that appeal to modern sensibilities. In object after object, and in buildings and even in philosophy, spareness of form and economy of expression are valued. Then too, there is the mystery, the shamanistic qualities projected by this work, - qualities that have transfixed us throughout the ages.

Two small female figures from the second millennium B.C., found in positions around a coffin at the cemetery at Naga el-Deir, a place near the Nile in northern Upper Egypt, are examples of this. Although characteristics and features are reduced to suggestions, the nude women possess great expressive power, and great mystery as well.

One of the show's genuine strengths is its presentation of Nubian art. …