Beyond The Nile at the Getty

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Back in the last century, say 40 years ago, undergraduate classes at university typically used Janson’s History of Art, a heavy book of color plates and clear definitions. That approach to art history is dissolving with recent scholarship and an exhibition at the Getty Museum, Beyond The Nile: Egypt and the Classical World is an excellent example. It demonstrates the influence of Egyptian culture on Greece and Rome for more than a millenium.

Though evidence stems from 2000 B.C., with trade between Crete and Greece and Egypt, contact tapered off due to conflicts in the region until the 7th century B.C. when the Greeks began returning to Egypt as soldiers or traders. Both patrons and artists admired the sophistication of the established Egyptian culture, which had not been eroded by war or occupation, especially the monumentality of the pyramids and tomb sculpture.

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Sarcophagus of Wahibreemakhet, 664–525 B.C. Egyptian. Basalt. Object: H: 230 x W: 94 x D: 105 cm, 4000 kg (90 9/16 x 37 x 41 5/16in., 4 tons 818.4 lb.) Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden. National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden

The first dramatic presentation in the show is a pair of figurative sculptures. An Egyptian priest carved in limestone stands in a stiff, frontal pose, eyes open and wearing a loin cloth. Dated from between 664 and 610 B.C., the pose of the tomb sculpture is almost identical to that of a Greek Kouros from 520 B.C. While the Greek figure is more naturalistic, with arms bent at the elbows, muscled and full frontal in nudity, the artist was imitating the Egyptian precedent. Both pieces are presented in a dimly lit gallery next to a huge basalt sarcophagus made around 600 B.C. for a highly placed Egyptian official born to Greek parents. And all three pieces inspire awe.

Macedonian Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C. but died after only eleven years in power. His general Ptolemy eventually gained power and subsequent rulers, all calling themselves Ptolemy, maintained power for three centuries and promoted a hybrid of Greek and Egyptian culture.

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Marble head of Alexander the Great, 2nd–1st century B.C. 
Egyptian, Ptolemaic Marble. Object: H: 38.1 x W: 22.9 x D: 24.1 cm (15 x 9 x 9 1/2 in.) © The Trustees of the British Museum.

They were represented in sculpture as Greek kings with individualized features as well as stylized Egyptian pharaohs. The exhibition includes numerous pieces that exemplify the ways in which the two countries, with different languages, customs and divinities, integrated each other’s cultures.

King Tut is not to be found in this show though artifacts from his personal tomb are on view in an unrelated exhibition, Treasures of the Golden Pharoah, at the California Science Center.

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Relief of Ptolemy VIII and a Cleopatra offering, 170–116 B.C. 
Egyptian, Ptolemaic. Brownish sandstone. Object: H: 91 x W: 81 x D: 30 cm (35 13/16 x 31 7/8 x 11 13/16 in.) Photo Credit: bpk Bildagentur / Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung / Art Resource, NY

But the show does feature an early Cleopatra. A relief from the Karnak Temple portrays Ptolemy VIII, who we learn was simultaneously married to his sister, Cleopatra II, and her daughter, Cleopatra III. And, yes, there are busts of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, carved in the dark stone popular in Egypt.

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The Green Caesar, 1st century B.C.–1st century A.D. 
Roman. Green slate. Object: H: 44 x W: 26 x D: 25 cm (17 5/16 x 10 1/4 x 9 13/16 in.) Photo credit: bpk Bildagentur / Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz / Art Resource, NY

From 30 B.C to A.D. 300, the Romans ruled Egypt and, like the Ptolemies, the leaders represented themselves in the guise of Pharoahs to a populace of Egyptians and Greeks living in the region. The newly powerful Romans were impressed by the traditions, and wealth, found in Egypt and brought sculptures and mosaics back to Rome, where they were used as decoration at villas.

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L: Tjayasetimu, Egyptian, Dynasty 26, 664-610BC, Limestone with traces of pigment. Trustees of the Bristish Museum, London EA 1682. R: Kouros, Greek about 520 BC: found in Ptoon, Boeotia, Greece, Marble. Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, National Archaeological Museum Athens, 12 and 2005. Photo credit: Drohojowska-Philp

Even Egyptian deities, such as Isis, gained popularity in the Roman Empire, especially around the Bay of Naples. One such goddess from the first century A.D. stood in the portico of her temple in Pompeii, carved in the manner of archaic Greek sculpture, while wearing a flowing dress and carrying her symbol, the ankh. The Emperor Domitian in the second century A.D. had himself carved as a Pharoah and erected a temple to Isis with two hieroglyph covered obelisks. One of them is on loan and stands in the entrance of the Getty Museum.

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Isis, late 2nd century–early 1st century B.C. Roman. Marble with traces of pigment Object: H: 100 × W: 26 × D: 20 cm, 80 kg (39 3/8 × 10 1/4 × 7 7/8 in., 176.368 lb.) Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli Su concessione del Ministero dei Beni delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo. Napoli, Museo Archeologico Nazionale

The Romans themselves soon produced works of art and decoration in the Egyptian style. Nilotic landscapes were frescoed on villa walls, sculptures of crocodiles and hippopotami were installed in private gardens. The show includes a granite vase carved with such scenes that was found at the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli.

With more than 100 significant pieces in the show, there are insights for anyone, with or without a deep knowledge of the history. They have been drawn from a wide range of museum and private collections and some have never been lent for such an exhibition. Organized in part by Getty Museum Director Timothy Potts, the show benefits from the strengths of the museum’s own antiquities collections, its history and its ability to borrow such excellent examples. It continues through Sept. 9.

The exhibition coordinates nicely with the reinstallation of antiquities at the Getty Villa, a chronological arrangement of classical art from the Neolithic Period, 6000 B.C., to the late Roman Empire, around A.D. 600.

Also at the Villa, there is a show with the intriguing title Plato in L.A.: Contemporary Artists’ Visions, with Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon and others through Sept. 3.