The profound weight of Egyptian art can enthrall the contemporary mind, making modern work look light-fingered and fickle by contrast. No modern building – however high or large – appears as massive as the pyramids. No depiction of the human figure seems as stable or unmoving as the statues of the pharaohs, whose gaze remains fixed upon eternity. The lively Egyptian reliefs become inseparable from the stone upon which they are carved; even the jewelry has a tangible heft. Egyptian art has such gravitas that it seems to slow time itself, retaining a fundamentally unchanged character over millennia.
Unfortunately, presentations of Egyptian art often look musty, cluttered, or merely archaeological, which diminishes the sublime sensation of weight. Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art From the British Museum, which opened recently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, does not suffer from these typical problems – it conveys the underlying power of the tradition. Organized in Brooklyn by Edna R. Russmann, the exhibit of almost 150 works is not excessively large, yet it covers about 3,500 years – an extraordinary panorama. The objects themselves vary greatly in size, from colossal heads to bits of jewelry, creating exciting distinctions of scale. Several Book of the Dead papyrus rolls are on view that seem especially full of life. (It was the Egyptians’ love for this world, more than any morbid fascination with death, that led them to create such a rich afterlife.) The larger works in the exhibition, such as a magnificent reclining lion and the enormous Head of Amenhotep III, have ample space to breathe, which enhances their powerful presence. The quality of the objects is superb. Many of the best pieces from the British Museum, one of the greatest repositories of Egyptian art in the world, are on display. Where a piece is damaged or broken, time seems to conspire with art – so that even the cracks enrich the aesthetic effect.
The rare sensation of profound weight is also conveyed in a small show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island. The mysterious island is famous for its isolation in the Pacific and, of course, renowned for the august stone figures that its people (who originally came from Polynesia) created for temples constructed along the coast. The massive heads of the figures, representing ancestral chiefs, are canted toward the infinite sky yet face inland to watch over the people. They seem to anchor the treeless island in the vast and timeless sea. Sculptors created about 900 of these weighty figures in all, some more than 30 feet in height. In this exhibit, organized by Eric Kjellgren, one of the smaller of the great heads is on display. The show also includes less familiar examples of the island’s art. In contrast to the still, stone figures, the other work of the Easter Islanders appears more restless in spirit. Many objects blend human and animal forms: Some have the fluid form of a darting lizard.
Few modern artists work with the sensation of great weight. No doubt practical considerations partly explain this, but there are also other important reasons. Where is weight to be found in the flickering light of an electronic age that promotes constant change? Among contemporary artists, only Richard Serra, whose exhibition recently closed at the Gagosian Gallery, is closely identified with heaviness and its implications. But he uses it to create a very different impression from that found in ancient cultures. In two of the works at the show, viewers walked along pathways within massive torqued spirals of steel. The path laid out did not seem settled. The body became disoriented: Lines of sight wavered, and the weight of the leaning steel appeared somewhat unstable and without center, sending a powerful existential ripple into our world.
Eternal Egypt: Masterworks of Ancient Art From the British Museum
At the Brooklyn Museum of Art; through February 24, 2002.
Splendid Isolation: Art of Easter Island
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art; through August 4, 2002.