Cleveland Museum of Art's "Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt," opens Sunday (photos)
CLEVELAND, Ohio – It has taken two years to organize "Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt," a major loan exhibition of ancient masterpieces from the British Museum in London that opens Sunday at the Cleveland Museum of Art as part of the museum's 2016 centennial.
In a larger sense, the show's roots stretch back to early spring 1993 at the Grand Palais in Paris. It was there that Aude Semat, the Egyptologist who organized the show opening in Cleveland on Sunday, had a fateful first encounter with Egyptian art.
Semat, who was then a high school student from Sarlat in the Dordogne department of southwest France, was visiting Paris on vacation with her mother.
Two lines had formed outside a pair of major exhibitions at the Grand Palais. The longer one led to a major traveling show on masterpieces of Titian, the master Venetian painter of the Italian Renaissance.
The shorter one led to "Amenhotep III and His World," a traveling exhibition of Egyptian art organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art to mark its 75th anniversary. And that was the one that Semat's mother insisted they take.
"It was that or Titian," Semat recalled during an interview at the Cleveland museum on Thursday. "My mother said, 'That line is longer than this one, so you won't see that,' " she said, recalling her art-historical fork in the road.
After waiting an hour to gain entry into the Cleveland Egyptian show, Semat was struck by the scale of the exhibition, and the huge crowds inside.
She also felt something she never had before about Egyptian art: "I loved it."
Her mother bought her a trinket that day: a pencil case in the shape of an ancient Egyptian coffin, a souvenir product made by the British Museum.
"I still use it," Semat said.
Semat now teaches Egyptian archaeology and art history at the École du Louvre in Paris and is completing her doctoral thesis in Egyptology at the Sorbonne on images of architecture in Egyptian art.
The French art historian recalled these memories while standing in front of the Cleveland museum's portrait bust of "Amenhotep III, Wearing the Blue Crown," one of a dozen-plus objects from the museum's collection on view alongside the visiting masterpieces from the British Museum.
Semat remembered first seeing the Amenhotep III portrait at the Grand Palais, an event that changed her life and, as luck would have it, led her back to Cleveland, first as an intern in the museum's department of Egyptian art, and now as a guest curator.
The current exhibition encompasses 157 works that trace 3,000 year of ancient Egyptian history and culture.
The show is an expanded version of a traveling exhibition organized by the British Museum that toured England and Scotland in 2011-13.
Semat said the show's general theme is to draw a contrast between the regal power projected by images of ancient pharaohs, and the political reality that they often ruled over territories divided by civil war, or occupied by foreign powers that took on the trappings of Egyptian civilization.
The exhibition is striking for the quality and large scale of many pieces, which are legacies of Britain's early collecting activities in Egypt during the 19th century, before modern controls on excavation and export of antiquities.
The British Museum famously acquired all the booty gathered by Napoleon after the British defeated the French occupation of Egypt in 1801.
Among the objects turned over by the French after the Treaty of Alexandria was the Rosetta Stone, which featured an ancient text in hieroglyphs; demotic, or popular Egyptian script; and ancient Greek.
Collecting by conquerors
The Rosetta Stone is not part of the Cleveland show, which emphasizes powerful artistic images rather than ancient texts.
Alongside the massive stone carvings in the show are exquisite pieces at minuscule scale, including a lapis lazuli jeweled ornament of a winged scarab beetle holding a sun disc.
It's one of Semat's favorites, not just because it's beautiful, but also because its images form a sentence referring to the rise of Ra, the Egyptian sun god.
"Every image is created with a magical reality," she said. "They are here not just to look beautiful; they have a purpose."
It's the purpose of the show, she said, to reveal both the beauty and meaning of ancient Egyptian art.
"I find it amazing we still have these images," she said. "We have a small glimpse of how they lived and what they thought."