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PHARAOHS OF THE SUN:
Art Institute of Chicago
'There is but one God.' Almost a millennium and a half before Moses, an Egyptian Pharaoh made that declaration. The exhibition catalogue notes, Amenhotep IV came to the conviction that: "all other gods 'had ceased,' and that the sun-disk, his father, was now the sole god." [Donald B. Redford, in the catalogue.] This pharaoh's father, Amenhotep III, had perfected his own devotion to Aten, or sun-disk of Ra-Horakhty; and when the son, Amenhotep IV ascended the throne (1553-1336 B.C.) he changed his own name to Akhenaten: "One Who is Effective For Aten"; officially declared a new religious life; and built a metropolis at Amarna to foster and administer it. When he died, a kingship and a society declared him accursed and did everything to efface him from human history. Perhaps Akhenaten was ahead of history. He did leave behind a legacy of artistic and social change, and a vision that lingered.
This is the central focus of "PHARAOHS OF THE SUN: Akhenaten/ Nefertiti/Tutankhamen," now at Art Institute of Chicago. The museum visitor will have until September 24, 2000, to examine the artifacts of that history and to enjoy the art of the period just before, during, and shortly after Akhenaten's Amarna.
The actual realities of Akhenaten's monotheism are not so simple, as the catalogue rightly points out. W. Raymond Johnson, Director of the Epigraphic Survey at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, and a contributor to the exhibition catalogue, wrote: "Akhenaten's religion was not monotheism, but something far more complex, embracing not only Aten, but also the deified Amenhotep III, and the gods Ptah and Ptah-Sokar-Osiris." And another catalogue contributor, Donald B. Redford, Professor of Classics at Pennsylvania State University, adds that, as a result of Akhenaten's 'heresy': "his father was now the sole god." Furthermore, Rita E. Freed, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which organized this exhibition, referenced Sigmund Freud's Moses and Monotheism (1939) to recall that psychoanalyst's speculations about Akhenaten as an inspiration for Judaic tradition. There are gaps, speculations, even inspirations in Akhenaten's history. What speaks immediately and clearly to the visitor is the art on display: Akhenaten's rule both developed latent tendencies in the society and its art, and left a persistent legacy.
Rita E. Freed's essay, "Art in the Service of Religion and the State," details the numerous alterations and trends which characterized the new art, just as John L. Foster's essay, "The New Religion," enumerates why it became so -- its iconology. (Needless to note, the exhibition catalogue is thorough, scholarly and excellent.) What we see on exhibition is ultimately what we truly know and can confirm. Thirty-six of the world's finest collections have contributed to insure that "PHARAOHS OF THE SUN: Akhenaten/ Nefertiti/Tutankhamen" is unsurpassable in quality and scope. It has been twenty years since any such Egyptian showing in Chicago, and the art in this exhibit is undeniably first-rate.
In "PHARAOHS OF THE SUN," the art is important and inspiring (even if its viewing may be problematic). What very clearly, and stunningly, emerges from this comprehensive display is that Akhenaten's will did indeed alter Egyptian art, or at least released a new approach toward depiction and function in Egyptian arts and the artisan crafts. Egypt prior to Akhenaten was the culmination of evolved stylization and iconology -- a conservative world-view, and secure. Rita Freed cites Egyptologist Cyril Aldred's revelation that Akhenaten's earlier sculptor, Bak, declared "Akhenaten himself gave instructions for the new modes of representation at the beginning of his reign," and adds: "then it is not out of the question that in later years also, the king personally directed his sculptors both to explore realism further and to soften the extreme lines of the earlier works."
It is evident in this show -- which spans colossal statuary to small personal effects and decorative arts -- that the Pharaohs of the Sun brought forth a release of art toward naturalism, a new interest in concrete depiction and actualistic concern for immediate physicality. For whatever theological justifications, one sees, for a first and fleeting time, old age and sagging bellies, individual faces: personal and intimate portraits in stone and painting. There is also an increased awareness of the lowly and the middling.
"PHARAOHS OF THE SUN: Akhenaten/Nefertiti/Tutankhamen" divides into three major focuses: before, during and after Akhenaten. The art, as well as its attending scholarly apparatus, raises questions as to how deep among the common people Akhenaten's novelty penetrated, and whether the pharaoh, and much of the people, felt an antipathy toward the power of the predominant Amen priesthood. Certainly there were desecrations of Amen cult centers and artifacts, and later, of Akhenaten's 'Atenism.' But Akhenaten's advocacy of Aten and of a new, attendant artistic sensibility lingered far beyond any apologetics or politics. Art had that power over human hearts even then.
There are very human, very poignant tragedies in this exhibition's tales. After the death of the monotheist 'heretic,' Akhenaten, his queen, Nefertiti struggled with a short rule as Smenkhkara, and in desperation seems to have covertly sought a co-regency in Egypt with a Hittite king. The aging Nefertiti died shortly after the murder en route of her Hittite prince. The exhibit offers moving, 'Akhenatenistic' portrayals of an aged Nefertiti.
The Amen cult, and all the old gods were shortly restored by Tutankhamen, born as Tutankhaten. And there were more ramifications...
Nicholas Reeves, in the exhibition catalogue, observes: "The anti-foreigner backlash that doubtless followed [Akhenaten's reign] may well represent one of the strands making up the biblical tradition of Exodus." It is speculation that the tolerant rule of Akhenaten's monotheism may have impressed the ancient Hebrews, particularly in light of the recoil against foreigners under the restoration of the old gods and their cults. Certainly Moses, an Egyptian, did become the leader of a subsequent Hebrew emigration from Egypt. But Akhenaten's reign did leave a powerful legacy. It may have emerged merely because the ancient societal conventions were for a time relaxed, or as a striving for new evolutions, but it struck a deep, if eventually waning resonance among the empire's significant artists.
"PHARAOHS OF THE SUN" is a singular exhibition, the likes of which will not come again. But, as 'block-buster,' it does raise reservations. As a reviewer, I was privileged (and it is indeed a privilege) to spend leisurely time examining its art and its histories. However, as a reviewer, I have anxieties for a gallery visitor about an exhibit which mandates "dated, timed tickets." The ticket prices are $10.00 on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday; $5.00 Tuesday; and $15.00 Friday through Sunday. The exhibition hours are: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday: 9:30 am-4:15 pm; and Tuesday: 9:30 am-7:45 pm. I would advise the earnest lover of art or of Egypt, to first buy the catalogue. It is well worth it, and remains a valuable resource. Read it closely and well in advance, decide what aspects and objects are of most interest, and linger there. (Attendants can be surprisingly indulgent if they sense the viewer really does have a serious interest.)
"PHARAOHS OF THE SUN: Akhenaten/Nefertiti/Tutankhamen" will run until September 24, 2000 at the Art Institute of Chicago. This exhibition was supported by the National Endowment fo the Humanities, ComEd and the Sara Lee Foundation. Catalogues for this exhibition are available from the Art Institute of Chicago's bookstore. The catalogue is a beautifully illustrated, well-documented work: 316 pages of scholarship and excellent photography, with supplemental drawings and maps. The paperback edition costs $29.95; the hardcover is $60.00.
--G. Jurek Polanski
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