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Pharaohs of the Sun

Pharaohs of the Sun
at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Recently the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston has been holding an exhibition called The Pharaohs of the Sun dealing with Akhenaten, Nefertiti and Tutankhamun. It is a stunning experience.

(for more information see exhibition website,
exhibition book, upcoming events)

The overall layout and content of the exhibition is for the most part very well thought-out. You enter in Amenhotep III's reign, viewing a myriad of statues and reliefs showing trends in artistic expression leading up to the Amarna period. This was a very pleasant surprise. They took the time to teach you to recognise Amenhotep III's facial features, something I hadn't learned before, and which quickly gave a great sense of intimacy.

At the end of this dark-walled room, two huge colossal heads of Akhenaten guard the door to the true "Amarna period," which begins just beyond with a 15-minute video including some computer simulation and some shots of the landscape around present-day Akhet-Aten. The video is pretty standard, having some overlap with "Egypt's Lost City" seen on TLC recently.

The colossi are anything but standard -- they are in themselves motivation enough to see the exhibition. They are huge and much more impressive in real life. In fact, that's what I'll find myself repeating again and again: that the pictures I've so often borrowed from the library are only pale ghosts of the real thing. I wasn't prepared for the emotional effect of seeing the pieces in the "flesh." The audio-guide tells you that the colossi were found in pieces and reassembled with super-glue (or something), though you can hardly tell. I went back to see these several times.

In the next room, which is cheerfully lit and painted yellowish, if I recall, are the real treasures. Here we see Nefertiti in various sensuous stones. The materials are so much more impressive than you would imagine - the yellow jasper fragment of a queen is really very colourful, with speckles of green and red, and an almost organic quality. The quartzite head of Nefertiti sparkles under the lights like snow. And the pieces are mostly under life-size, which makes their detail all the more impressive. The head of Queen Tiye is only as tall as my thumb, which seems to give her expression a very concentrated intensity.

The other thing that you can only catch in real-life is the feeling of the sculptor's presence -- you can imagine how it felt to carve the lines of Tiye's mouth when you see them in three dimensions, and you can almost feel the textures of the materials. The materials themselves, in most cases, are beautiful of their own right, something of which I was never really aware. Also, there are details of the shape of the chin or cheekbones that you don't notice in the pictures. One of the statues of Nefertiti has lips ever so slightly parted.

I returned several times to see these pieces again, where they were prominently displayed at the entrance to the room. The rest of the room housed sculptures and reliefs, many of which I was familiar with, a few which I was not. They very sensibly placed the floor frescos at your feet for viewing -- the attention to details like this was impressive. There were a great many pieces here, which is why I spent a good two hours in that one room, making my way through the growing crowd to see each little statue and fragment of tile.

Among the highlights was the little wooden Tiye with one foot forward (this was actually in the first room). She never impressed me in the books, but I was astonished by the detail in person -- she is glorious! There was also a tiny Akhenaten which I had never seen, an absolutely magnificent copy of the early colossi, holding forward a small stela. Despite its size, it was still impressive and stern-looking.

I was also pleased by the many little bits of tile and other artistic pieces, such as the glass grape bunches. These lesser pieces are not praised often enough - they give such a feel for the city and its decoration. One inaccuracy in the computer animation in the video is that they frescos are shown as sparse block-colour things, which I can't imagine - the pieces we have show lively, busy scenes. To one side of the room several paintings and architectural elements are collected, giving you the impression of standing in Akhet-Aten (well, okay, if you concentrate, and you're a fanatic like me). These included the floor frescos, a slice of a column decorated with relief. The colour and ornamentation are very impressive. The famous relief of Akhenaten worshipping Aten followed by Nefertiti and Meretaten (which I still think is from the "alien period" of Egyptian art) is actually a part of a sloping ramp of some sort, which gives it more context and somehow makes it more interesting.

As I stood looking in one of the many display-cases along the wall, a couple of seven-year-olds ran up and stared wide-eyed into it, one of them (correctly) gasping in awe, "The Blue Crown!" In fact, there were quite a few children there, many of whom seemed to know more than the adults, at least judging by their running play-by-play. It was quite crowded, but the exhibit was for the most part roomy enough so that you never had trouble seeing (even if lack of oxygen was a problem). In a later room, a blue vase was attracting the attention of some middle-aged men with conference-tags who were discussing the translation of the hieroglyphs on it -- this impressed me.

This middle large area also housed the model of Akhet-Aten (the central city, mostly). This was impressive, but too large and small to really be able to examine (the buildings were small and all but the outer ones were too far away from you to really examine). It is extremely detailed and carefully done, and an impressive feat.

By the time you leave this room, you have a much better developed intuition for the royal faces, and you begin to believe that they are true-to-life depictions because of their consistency in features. Several times, Kiya was re-worked (badly, I might add) to be a princess, her wig becoming a side-lock. Some reliefs show evidence of erasure. These changes are so much more obvious in reality, where you can see the three-dimensionality. I've spent a lot of time examining such things in books, and never really understood.

A few pieces quite made me wonder. There is a little sphere in blue glaze showing Akhenaten sitting on a boat, reaching out to a disc resting on the bow. Nefertiti does the same on the opposite side of the sphere. I thought it was an intriguing little thing, which if I recall was labelled "religious relic" or something enlightening of that sort. I was also confused by a little wooden, somewhat mangled piece labelled a "beer strainer," and depicted in a nearby relief as a sort of straw for drinking beer, which, looking at the thing, didn't seem very practical or possible at all. Certainly interesting, though.

To the end of the room, however, the curators started to run out of steam, it seems, or at least space. Several houshold items were displayed in boxes along one wall, but so many objects were shown in the ceiling-high displays that you had to stand in line to circulate past them. There were some of my favourites there, though, including a figurine of Bes and another of Seth (I think). There were a few stools, a window-grate, some pottery and glass. I was impressed by the glass, though the fish they show on the website isn't as impressive in real life. Here they also show the plaster casts from Thutmose's workshop showing some ordinary-looking people.

Across from this, is a tiny, far too tiny room showing a few items of the tombs, including a corner of the sarcophagus. This room had a lineup extending out of it, which you had to join to circulate (and when you got in the limited oxygen cut short your stay). This was an unfortunate arrangement. I would have liked to look more closely at these pieces, which included the MET canopic jar from KV55.

For a little world-context, they showed some reliefs of Nubians, which were fascinating - they certainly have distinctive facial features. They also displayed a few of the Amarna letters! They are also surprisingly tiny, and loaf-shaped. Along with these was a little explanation of their significance, but mostly the history played a secondary role to the art in this exhibition, which suited my tastes well. However, they were unnecessarily vague on some of it, especially the turmoil after the Amarna period. I'm not sure Smenkhkare was mentioned at all, and Aye and Horemheb's roles were never fully explained. There was a concentration on Tutankhamun which seemed more aimed at attracting crowds than explaining the history. There were none of his tomb treasures on display, and only a few sculptures. These made up the last room, which seemed a hodge-podge of afterthoughts. I was, unfortunately, rushed through that room, however, as I had a mere 15 minutes before I had to meet my friends (in total, I spent about 3 1/2 hours in the exhibit, but I would have spent more if I could have).

I learned some new things, such as that the depiction of all five toes in relief was reserved for royalty alone. And I saw some pieces I've wanted to see for years. There is quite some overlap with the Royal Women of Amarna exhibition from a few years ago, which pleased me quite a bit.

Through all this, the audio guide was very useful, with occasional tangents and excerpts from explanations by various scholars. It was well-designed and easy to use. But I really think the Hymn to the Aten should have been included on it. An excerpt was displayed on the wall in a corner, but if we are examining the splendid art of the period, it's only fitting to include what little we have of the literature, especially so beautiful a piece.

The other unfortunately absent item was Nefertiti's famous bust. Though there were a great many wonderful items from the Aegyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin, I was sad not to see her there. It would have been spectacular to see a full-size colossus of Akhenaten as well, but I can imagine that may present some difficulties in transportation (and I don't think the ceilings were high enough here)!

The exhibition is not to be missed even if you have to, like me, beg a friend to drive you down for the weekend in a two-door compact with four people (one of whom is 6'5"). It was not a disappointment in the least -- in fact, I plan to do everything in my power to see it again in Chicago when it is there July-September. I really didn't stay long enough this time around.

I went to Boston for the weekend with my friends, and among the other things worth seeing are the New England Aquarium, Museum of Science and the Blue Man Group. Among the things not worth seeing is T-Rex: Back to the Cretaceous. Here we are at an e-mail photo booth at the Museum of Science:

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Last updated March 1, 2000.