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The art of Egypt, Greece and Rome

‘Ancient Mediterranean’ exhibition at BYU is stunning, exquisite

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PROVO — The Brigham Young University Museum of Art has opened what is sure to be one of the most important, talked-about exhibitions of this year and next: "Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World: Egypt, Greece, Rome."

With 204 pieces from the renowned collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the works span a period from predynastic Egypt, circa 5000 B.C., to the Roman late imperial period, about 350 A.D.

As with its previous major exhibits, the MOA has gone all out to bathe each artifact, whether large or small, in the best light, often positioning works so they jump out at viewers when rounding a corner or entering the next gallery.

"This is a wonderful show," said John Gee, Egyptologist at Brigham Young University. "It's been almost 20 years since we've had anything like it." ("Ramses II: The Pharaoh and His Times" was at the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum, BYU, in 1985-86.)

According to Gee, the exhibit doesn't have the big statues that "Ramses II" had. "But the advantage you have is, where 'Ramses II' covered a short slice of time (about 200 years), this exhibit covers over 3,000 years of Egyptian history."

The Egyptian pieces — which constitute more than 60 percent of the BMFA's collection — include maceheads used by Egyptian soldiers 6,000 years ago, as well as pottery made about 3500 B.C. Other pieces from the predynastic Egyptian period include exquisitely crafted vessels in marble, alabaster and breccia (rock consisting of sharp fragments embedded in a fine-grained material such as sand or clay).

Exceptional Egyptian items from the Old Kingdom (2600-2100 B.C.) include relief panels and statuary from the tomb of Nekhebu, the great building superintendent for tombs, temples and irrigation projects under King Pepy I (2600 B.C.).

Visitors to the exhibit will learn how Egyptian artists followed a strict stylistic code that stressed not what the eye could see from a particular angle, but what were considered the essential elements of a figure or scene. This made for hieroglyphic figures where the face is in profile, the torso is straight on and the legs are profile and spread apart, with each foot having its large toe on the outside, closest to the viewer.

Middle Kingdom (1900-1600 B.C.) treasures in the show include sundry items used by ancient Egyptians in their daily lives: necklaces of amethyst and carnelian (hard translucent quartz, reddish in color), cosmetic jars of serpentinite (dull green stone, often mottled) and obsidian, and a mirror of copper alloy.

The numerous New Kingdom (1500-1100 B.C.) offerings include fine statuary, brightly colored ceramic and faience (earthenware decorated with opaque colored glazes) vessels, and some household items of carved wood.

"In this exhibit there's less of an emphasis on royalty," said Gee, "and more on things that common Egyptians and the lower nobility would have had and used, all well-made, functional and very beautiful."

Some of the most breathtaking pieces in the exhibition are from the late dynasty period (1000-600 B.C.). They include the cartonnage (inner coffin) and outer coffin of Pennu, a high official at the Temple of Karnak at Thebes (Luxor). Other items in the "Tomb Room" include gold amulets (magical charms to ease a person's way in the afterlife). A striking gilded mummy mask from Roman time (100 A.D.) illustrates the continuing influence of traditional Egyptian religious and artistic conventions.

Highlights from the Greek pieces in the exhibit include elegant ceramics from the Archaic (c. 600-480 B.C.), Classical (c. 480-330 B.C.) and Hellenistic (c. 330-30 B.C.) periods. There are superb examples of black-figure, red-figure and white-ground vases. Viewers will see the shift from following strict artistic convention to experimentation, as when artists began to show how fabric draped over the body and how the figure actually looked.

Other highlights include Greek statuary, depicting what they believed was the ideal human form (techniques many artists adhere to today). There is one marble statue of a draped female torso (unfortunately headless and legless) that is so masterfully carved, visitors will believe that actual fine linen is draped over the arm and hand. It is exquisite.

There are also coins and jewelry from the three periods.

The Roman pieces in the exhibition demonstrate civilization's great artistic debt to the Greeks. Indeed, much of what we know today of Greek masterpieces comes from Roman copies. Eventually the Roman copying turned to an art that was distinctly its own. For example, Roman artists had mastered the capturing of an individual likeness, warts and all, featuring faces far from the classical ideal seen in Greek art.

While some emperors, such as Augustus, always had themselves depicted in the bloom of youth, others, such as the Emperor Vespasian, preferred realistic portraits, depicting him as wrinkled, balding and mature. (A miniature portrait of Vespasian is featured in the exhibit.)

In the later centuries of the Empire, Roman emperors ordered coins and other objects that depicted them as tough, mature and experienced. This would, the emperors believed, intimidate the invading barbarians.

Museum visitors will marvel at the growing trend toward realism and the effort to experiment in the art of the Mediterranean. The beauty, detail and purpose of the pieces will enthrall viewers, giving them a greater appreciation of the people that lived during these times and a keen admiration for the artists that produced the objects.

"Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World: Egypt, Greece, Rome" is an exhibition for every age group — especially children — and should be seen and experienced several times over the course of its stay in Provo.

E-mail: gag@desnews.com