"Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," now on view in Manhattan until Jan. 2, 2011, has unleashed rampant Tut-mania in New York, just like it did at the exhibitionís previous seven stops. This is last venue for this touring blockbuster. A selection of about 50 pieces unearthed from the tomb of King Tut (ca. 1343 BC-1333 BC) is being shown with about 80 more items from the 18th Dynasty in Egypt.
There were more important pharaohs than Tutankhamun. He was only nine when he ascended the throne and seems to have died suddenly a mere nine years later at 18 or 19. But the boy-kingís tomb was the only royal tomb not pillaged by grave robbers before being found. His splendid array of gold treasures and other artifacts, unearthed by Englishman Howard Carter in 1922, caused a sensation that remains undiminished to this day. It also provided clues to the life of pharaohs during the New Kingdom period in which he lived.
Among the most intriguing pieces from Tutís tomb is a painted wooden torso of Tut. He may have been considered both a god and a human being, but the human dominates in this startlingly realistic bust, wearing a royal crown and linen shirt, but without arms. Could it have been used to display clothes, jewelry, or for ritual purposes? It projects a lively presence, but its purpose is one of the many mysteries still unanswered about Tut.
But the most impressive pieces are the many fine gold, personal items found with Tutankhamunís mummy. The showís grand finale consists of a replica of the mummy chamber with a handful of finely wrought, mostly gold objects -- a jeweled pectoral, made of gold, silver, glass and semiprecious stones, a gold diadem, and a gold knife and sheath too delicate for this world but perfect for use in a royal afterlife among others.
This is the second Tut exhibition to tour the U.S. and very different from the earlier 1976-79 King Tut tour. Only a handful of pieces are the same, so fans of that show at the Metropolitan Museum will want to visit the Discovery Center to see the new material. This show also contains some of the latest scientific research on Tut. Itís explained along with a replica of Tutís mummy at the very end of the exhibition.
The King Tut shows are more than simple cultural exchanges, of course; theyíre designed for fundraising as well, and this tour should help pay for a new museum to house antiquities in Cairo. Admission is $27.50 for adults. People arenít talking on the record about the financial arrangements, but insiders say that the Dr. Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egyptís Supreme Council of Antiquities, couldnít get the Met to agree, as did this tourís other venues, to $5 million up front along with a hefty percentage of fees and other income.
As a result, look for a different kind of experience compared with the show at the Met in the 1970s. Making the best of the situation, visitors embark on their own journey into Tutís world by traveling underneath Times Square into a tomb-like space with dramatic spot-lit areas. The idea of entering a tomb is clever and works well at this site. You learn about Egyptian life, other royals, and finally Tut. And you get an audio-guide with Omar Sharif as announcer, playing an ancient sage, to guide you on your way. I got tired of his emoting after a bit, but hang on. The information is very useful, even necessary. The introductory video lasts only 90 seconds.
In publicity for the show, there is a golden statue of King Tut that looks like the gilded funerary mask of King Tutís mummy, which appeared in the last exhibition. The golden mask wonít leave Cairo again by order of the Egyptian government. What you are actually seeing is a much smaller, but also exquisite piece, one of four miniature coffins for the viscera of Tut. The Egyptians embalmed the body, placing the heart back into it, but putting the stomach, intestines, lungs and, in this case, the liver in separate containers.
Tutís liver coffinette is made of gold, with inlays of colored glass and carnelian, and obsidian and rock crystal for his eyes. He holds a flail, symbol of royal power, and a crook, symbol of the king as shepherd of his people. It measures only about ten inches high, yet it exudes power.
The exhibition emphasizes not only Tut but also his family, as research has lead to new discoveries about them, too. You may not see any of the three nested coffins or four nested shrines or the funerary mask over Tutís mummy, but you can admire the gilded cartonage mummy mask and gilded wood coffin of Tjuya, a priestess and mother of an earlier queen. They are both spectacular.
One of my favorite pieces isnít made of gold. Itís a carved-calcite cylindrical cosmetic jar with a recumbent lion, representing the king, on the lid. Instead of feet, the jar rests on four heads of traditional enemies of Egypt, two Nubians of carved black stone, and two western Asians carved in red stone. The exterior walls of the vessel are incised and painted blue. They show a lion attacking a bovine with the help of dogs, symbolic of the king overcoming chaos. Two pillars topped by the head of the protective household god, Bes, complete this work, found between the walls of the first and second shrines encasing Tutís mummy.
Like all the items in Tutís tomb, the cosmetic jar was valued less as an art object than as a tool to insure the eternal life of the king and to remind him of his duties and to protect him on his way through the afterlife.
Soon another item will join the exhibition, one of six chariots that were found in Tutankhamunís tomb. This chariot is not as elaborate as the others with their gold overlays, which may have been used only in ceremonies. The boy-king might actually have used this light vehicle, which will be traveling outside Egypt for the first time. It should arrive within a week or two.
Not long ago, King Tut was pictured as a vigorous young man who liked to hunt, perhaps from this very chariot. He was also thought to have been murdered, as he seems to have died suddenly. With CT-scans and DNA evidence, the picture now is of a frail youth, who may have been the victim of an accident. He did have a crippled foot and had had malaria. Maybe he was weak, fell, and died as a result. But we donít really know. Maybe he was vigorous despite his physical problems. Murder seems unlikely, but exactly how he lived and died is still a matter of conjecture.
The Brooklyn Museumís "To Live Forever: Art and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt" had already closed, just as Tut was arriving, unfortunately, but the catalogue is available. It gave a wonderful overview of New Kingdom funeral rites and associated objects for every strata of Egyptian society.
"To Live Forever" is touring to the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa (June 6-Sept. 12, 2010), the San Antonio Museum of Art (Oct. 15, 2010- Jan. 9, 2011), the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach (Feb. 12-May 8, 2011), the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno (June 11-Sept. 4, 2011), and the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, (Oct. 6, 2011-Jan. 7, 2012).
While not as extensive as the Metropolitanís collection, the Brooklyn Museumís Egpytian material is considered among the best in the world. If you havenít visited lately, now is an excellent time to see more mummies and discover this world-class collection. And suggested admission is only $10.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.