The Age of Amarna
Cheng, Scarlet, The World and I
In a season that has offered three blockbuster exhibitions on ancient Egypt, one examines the brief but fertile period in which the pharaoh imposed monotheistic worship of the sun god, built a new capital, and introduced naturalism and emotion into Egyptian art.
Ancient Egypt has a special hold on the Western imagination. That civilization started roughly five thousand years ago on the fertile banks of the Nile and lasted nearly three thousand years, leaving behind a vast wealth of monuments, tombs, writings, arts, and crafts. In this century a stream of new discoveries, exhibitions, and publications has continued to fuel our fascination for this culture. And while we think we know it--the images of the pyramids and King Tut's golden burial mask are so ubiquitous--so much more is yet to be known.
A virtual sliver of Egyptian history is highlighted in Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen. an extraordinary exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston. The show opened in Boston in November and is there through February 6, before traveling to two other venues this year. It is a close-up zoom into the Age of Armana (1353--1336 b.c.), a remarkably creative and distinctive period in which the multideity nature of Egyptian religion was nearly toppled by the iconoclast pharaoh Akhenaten, who moved his capital to a new site on the Nile, in an area now known as Amarna.
Curiously, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also presented a major exhibition on ancient Egypt last fall, Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, but it traced the development of the art, politics, and religion in the Old Kingdom, 2649--2150 b.c.--five centuries during which Egyptian civilization reached a zenith and the Great Pyramids on the Giza plateau were built. That exhibit opened originally at the Grand Palais in Paris and is now at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, through May 22. Both exhibitions boast blockbuster proportions: Each has some 250 objects from over thirty museums and collections all over the world, including Cairo's Egyptian Museum, London's British Museum, Paris' Louvre, and Berlin's Agyptisches Museum. And of course the Metropolitan and the MFA culled material from their own vast holdings and, indeed, from each other.
On the face of it, these shows seem competitive. But in fact they are complementary, for they are about macro and micro visions. "We tend to look at ancient Egyptian history by the span of centuries," muses Rita Freed, the MFA's curator of ancient Egyptian, Nubian, and Near Eastern Art, "so our focus on the Amarna Age, which lasted only seventeen years, is really just a blink." Still, it is quite a blink.
While the Toronto show gives a sense of the dynastic continuity of ancient Egypt, the Boston show presents the cultural and spiritual efflorescence that often results from schism with the moldy past, a schism usually driven by the force of individual belief and personality. Continuity and change--the arc of history is created by these dynamics.
At the same time there are parallels between the two shows. The MFA and the Metropolitan are the two largest encyclopedic American museums under one roof, and they also happen to have the best collections of ancient Egyptian art in this country. That is because they got into Egypt early, sending regular expeditions there in the early part of the twentieth century--at a time when Egyptians themselves lacked the technical expertise and facilities to preserve and store the treasures being unearthed in the desert. The Egyptians were thus willing to cooperate with foreign institutions that funded digs and generously divvied up the finds--the Egyptians made the first selection, and the rest was offered to their guest archaeologists.
Things have changed. Today when these two American institutions send expeditions to the field, it is for research, and the objects found are kept in Egypt. …