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Journey to the Afterlife > Art of the Ancients November 11, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Museums.

An Australia-bound exhibition of Egyptian artefacts from the Louvre is about much more than pyramids and sphinxes, its curator tells

Images from ancient Egypt, the pyramids and the sphinxes, the mummies, headdresses and loin cloths, the sacred scarabs and priestly cats, are plentiful in popular culture, but they are almost cartoon-like in their superficiality. Our familiarity with them is misleading. The mind-set of these mysterious people is far less transparent to us than that of the ancient Greeks, whose classical civilisation flared comparatively briefly towards the end of the 3000-year reign of the pharaohs.

To walk from the Egyptian rooms in the Louvre in Paris, one of the great repositories of this material, into those of the Greeks next door is to leave the seemingly modern, large-scaled, brightly coloured and smoothly textured, dominated by text and brand-like pictograms, for the rough-hewn simplicity of a much more distant world.

Yet the Greeks gave us the foundations of our intellectual life: philosophy, science, literature. The everyday metaphysics of the Egyptians, mind-bending notions such as the interchangeability of the real and the symbolic, or belief in the coexistence of the living and the dead in the material and the immaterial worlds, strains the imagination. Plato spent time in Egypt and is said to have taken from there his metaphor of life being like shadows flickering on the walls of a cave. Shifting back from the mental world of the Greeks to that of the Egyptians, however, is a leap for us.

“You could say the Egyptians created the virtual world,” says Marc Etienne, curator of the department of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre. “The world of ideas is a kind of mirror of the real world; when you see the thing, it brings back the ideal object of the world of ideas. And you can use the virtuality in the material world.”

It is quite different from our idea of an image merely symbolising the object in space: rather, the image could have a material effect, certainly in the afterlife. “An image was a true substitute of the real thing,” Etienne says, “so there is always a kind of va et vient (coming and going) between the object itself and the reality that it conveyed.”

Pharaohs were buried with retinues of attendants carved from stone, up to 400 in later times, with household implements and real food, all of which they could use in the afterlife. To name an object or a concept was to give it existence, and the most catastrophic thing that could befall an Egyptian was for his name to fall from use when he died. If his memory died, he was not immortal.

Etienne has curated an exhibition of 202 Egyptian artefacts from the Louvre, which opens at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra on Thursday, then travels to Adelaide and Perth, remaining in Australia for almost 12 months. Journey to the Afterlife: Egyptian Antiquities from the Louvre is designed to lead people in with the familiar, then to surprise them.

“So there are sarcophagi, mummies, sphinxes, royal statues, things people know through books and cinema, but I wanted to avoid the deja vu,” Etienne says. “It’s a bit of a challenge, with pieces taken from the collection that are, on aesthetic grounds, striking or sometimes that are a little bit provocative, to shake people’s minds up with things that they would hardly consider Egyptian, or that they might not expect from this art.”

Journey to the Afterlife: Egyptian Antiquities from the Louvre is at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, from Friday to February 25, the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, March 21 to July 1, and the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, July 20 to October28, 2007.

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