Visions of Ancient Egypt: ‘a blockbuster having a breakdown’

More than 2,000 years after its collapse, ancient Egyptian civilisation “continues to fascinate us”, said Aimee Dawson in The Art Newspaper.

Yet much of what we understand about this lost world and its “pharaohs, hidden treasures and unsolved mysteries” is wide of the mark; indeed, as a new exhibition at Norwich’s Sainsbury Centre argues, our vision of ancient Egypt is largely a fantasy created by a particular kind of “Western colonial mindset” and propagated by successive waves of superpowers, from the Romans to the British to the film studios of the USA.

Marking the centenary of the archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the show attempts to “untangle” the ways in which Egypt’s image has been shaped by the West: from sculpture and painting to fashion and architecture, outsiders have raided and exploited this most fruitful source of historical inspiration.

The exhibition brings together more than 200 objects, from ancient artefacts to classic 19th century Orientalist paintings, to works by contemporary Egyptian artists that explore the aesthetic clichés surrounding their country.There’s no shortage of “gems” here, said Jonathan Jones in The Guardian. Alas, they have been cobbled together in the service of a thesis which lumps 2,000 years of fascination with Egypt “into one unbroken wall of Western prejudice”.

Western racism towards Egypt began, the show argues, with the Roman defeat of Cleopatra, and still persists today. There are some lurid expressions of Egyptomania on display here, certainly, such as Edwin Long’s “ridiculous” Victorian painting of an ancient Egyptian harem. Yet many exhibits kick against that simplistic thesis.

A marvellous depiction of the emperor Diocletian dressed as a pharaoh is surely an instance of the two “cultures interacting”. Likewise, Sir John Soane’s “intoxicated” studies of Egyptian architecture, from the early 19th century, show why he saw it as superior to European classicism. “This exhibition wants us to stop our love affair with this lost world but it can’t.” It’s “a blockbuster having a breakdown”.

Well, the idea is to illuminate the “fantasy” of ancient Egypt, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. So there’s a Joshua Reynolds portrait of the 18th century courtesan Kitty Fisher dressed up as Cleopatra next to a still of Elizabeth Taylor playing the same character in the 1963 Hollywood epic. Neither tells us much about Cleopatra herself, but both speak volumes about her “afterlife as a sybaritic temptress”.

Even so, there’s an unappealing air of sanctimony to the proceedings: many depictions of ancient Egypt do indeed “reflect vexed colonial values”, but to be “sniffy” about this while attempting to entertain an audience with the same material seems “hypocritical”. “Engaging” as it is, this is a missed opportunity.

Sainsbury’s Centre, Norwich. Until 1 January 2023

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