Walk like an Egyptian

Pub date August 12, 2009
WriterMatt Sussman
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

"Wonderful things." So said Howard Carter in 1922 when the archaeologist was asked what he saw upon peeking into the just-opened tomb of boy-king Tutankhamun. Almost a century and many world tours later, King Tut’s wonderful things — enough beautifully crafted, jewel-encrusted, and gilded loot to last a dynastic ruler through the afterlife and beyond — still hold their allure.

At least that is the belief underlying "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs," Tut’s latest greatest hits global tour (it started in Los Angeles in 2005), which has made a penultimate stop at the de Young Museum on its encore run of U.S. venues. Displaying 50 of Tutankhamun’s burial objects, along with artifacts from the tombs of his royal predecessors, family, and court officials, Golden Age aims to give a broader picture of the good life in the 18th Dynasty (1555–1305 BCE). But really, it’s all about the booty.

And while Tut’s famous golden funerary mask is not on display (it has been deemed too fragile to travel, and like the pharaoh’s mummy, coffins, and sarcophagus, it will never leave Egypt), there is still plenty to "ooh" and "ahh" over: The scarab shaped pectoral amulet inlaid with lapis lazuli and other precious stones, a jewel encrusted canopic coffinette for the king’s viscera that resembles his more famous gold sarcophagus in miniature, and two nested coffinettes that morbidly contain the remains of fetuses whose relation to Tut is still being determined.

Given our current depression, nothing seems simultaneously more fantastically alien, or more apropos a reminder of our last gilded age, than the glittering horde on display. Although, perhaps because of Tut’s enduring celebrity (there’s something endearing about watching groups of school kids press up against the display cases, having once been a self-appointed junior Egyptologist myself), Golden Age pleasantly lacks the undertones of clueless class condescension that hung about the Legion of Honor’s recent "Artistic Luxury: Fabergé, Tiffany, Lalique" exhibit like stale perfume. Or perhaps Dede Wilsey just doesn’t have a canopic jar to graciously loan, as she did with her own Fabergé egg for that exhibit. Then again, when admission for a family of four amounts to a week’s worth of groceries, something’s not right.

Lately I’ve been thinking of another deceased king, also remembered as forever young, in relation to Tut: the King of Pop. Michael Jackson once cast himself as a shape-shifting stranger who woos Iman’s Queen Nefertiti with his dancing prowess in the ancient Egyptian-themed video for 1992’s "Remember the Time." But I feel it would have been more fitting for him to play the Boy King. In many ways he already was the Tut of our time.

The comparison is underscored by the Julien’s Auctions exhibit of Jackson’s possessions, which retroactively seems an augury of Jackson’s untimely death. The rococo furniture, the self-aggrandizing effigies, the five-figure gewgaws: Jackson’s royal treasury held hideous things, but they are wondrous all the same. The universe is strange. NBC Chicago recently reported on how a 3,000 year-old bust of an Egyptian woman at the Field Museum has been receiving unusual amounts of attention because of its resemblance to the latter day visage of Jackson. Maybe one day, and perhaps only in a future envisioned by the likes of Bruce McCall, Neverland will come to the de Young.