After King Tut landed at the Denver Art Museum in early August, it seemed like the whole town, not to mention plenty of tourists, flocked to the museumís gaudy Daniel Libeskind facility for a look at about 50 items from Tutís tomb, though Tutís splendid gold and jeweled funeral mask was absent, as it is no longer allowed to leave Cairo.
In its place, viewers can see an impressive monumental sandstone statue of the boy king, the largest ever found, as well as a small gold and jeweled canopic coffinette holding Tutís mummified viscera, one of four from the tomb. "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," as the show is titled, spans from the Old Kingdom to the Late Period of Egyptian art, or roughly 2500 BC to 660 BC.
Also absent is the intricately worked gold ceremonial dagger and sheath found with Tutís mummy. But the show does include the mummyís gold sandals, engraved to look as if they were made of reeds, which are fascinating. So is a gilded statue of Sopdu, a minor god who guarded borders, in the form of a seated hawk. Its sleek modern look would have made Picasso swoon.
The show ends with a notably contemporary touch: a CT-scan of Tutís mummy.
Denver has no Egyptian collection of its own, of course. Usually admission to the Denver Art Museum is free, but the institution went out on a limb to finance this show and is charging steep entry fees. I visited the museum on a weekend and easily got a timed ticket for $30, plus $5 for an audioguide (admission is less if youíre a member, or if you come during the week).
Like me, people in the area responded to the Tut opportunity by opening up their wallets, and the museum was quite busy. My fellow-viewers seemed excited by the chance to examine these famous objects.
I was a little giddy myself in seeing the remains of a monumental statue of Akhenaten, Tutís predecessor and the source of serious upheaval among his subjects. With its narrow face and sensuous lips, the figure has a distinctive magnetism, common to works of his time and unseen elsewhere in Egyptian art.
Akhenaten, who was Amenhotep IV before he changed his name, was Egyptís celebrated monotheist. It was he who exalted a single god -- Aten, a representation of the sun -- over the many previously worshipped by the Egyptians. Akhenaten built a huge new city and many temples to establish Atenís rites. A colossal sandstone figure shows the pharaoh wearing a double crown, signifying that he is not only a living king but also a representative of the sun god.
When Tut was elevated to pharaoh, his government moved to crush the new monotheistic religion and re-establish the legitimacy of the older gods and cults. Since Tut died at only about 19 years of age, his successors had to complete the transition.
The aforementioned monumental sandstone Tut comes from the remains of a funerary temple in Thebes that was dedicated to Ay and then Horemheb, Tutís two successors.
For whatever reasons, this statue of Tut was appropriated by Ay, and then its belt was scratched with the name of his successor Horemheb.
An early granite statue of the seated Hetep, who served at court in the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1991-1962 BC), is in an unusual block form. Odd, too, is the red coloring that remains on the head of unbaked clay that represents Amenhotep III, an 18th Dynasty predecessor of Tutís. He wears a crown that was traditionally blue, but a magical, religious rite may account for its unusual color.
Back in New York, which is already home to rich collections of Egyptian material at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, is yet another Tut exhibition, this one titled "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs." It features material from Tutís tomb, naturally, but concentrates on Tutís forebears in the New Kingdomís 18th Dynasty (ca. 1569 BC -1081 BC) and his successors in the 18th and 19th Dynasty.
Visitors to the New York exhibition get to see a gilded wood fan, symbol of kingship, from Tutís tomb, incised with an ostrich hunt. A similar Tut fan in Denver is inlaid with multicolored glass. Both would have had peacock feathers attached to them as they were borne around the pharaoh as his personal sun screens.
Stunning jewels in the form of collars are in each exhibition, but in Denver one belonging to the daughter of Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty pharaoh Amenemhat III, is especially fine and complete. Gold falcon heads bookend several rows of turquoise and carnelian and gold beads with a similarly worked counterweight.
New York also boasts a simple chariot, added to the show a few weeks ago, that may have been used by the boy-king himself. One of six discovered in the burial chamber of Tutankhamen, this single-driver chariot is lighter and simpler than the others, which are more elaborate and probably ceremonial. This one shows signs of wear and appears to have been capable of going 25 mph or more. †
No one knows what killed Tut, but he may have died as the result of a fall. He was known for liking to hunt and to go chariot-racing, so this marvel of ancient engineering may have played a part in his sudden death, if he were thrown while driving it. This is the first time it has been displayed outside of Egypt.
One thing is clear. The mysteries surrounding these magnificent objects and their owners, especially King Tutankhamun, will keep people coming to both Tut shows. The exhibitions are organized by the Egyptian antiquities authority, and their revenues are helping to underwrite the $350-million new Grand Egyptian Museum near the pyramids outside Cairo. The same folks are sponsoring "Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt," which premiered at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia this spring.
"Tutankhamum and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," Apr. 23, 2010-Jan. 2, 2011, at the Discover y TSX, 226 West 44th Street, New York, N.Y. 10036.
"Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs," June 29, 2010-Jan. 9, 2011, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, Denver, Co. 80204.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.