Visions of Egypt review – how can this show be so devoid of ancient wonder? | Art

vVisions of Egypt is a blockbuster having a breakdown. It argues that modern racism towards Egypt began with the Battle of Actium in 31BC when Octavian defeated Mark Antony and his lover Cleopatra, the ruler of Egypt, and annexed it. The Romans looted Egypt’s art, “demonized” its queen, and “laid the groundwork for western perceptions … that still persist today”.

But to claim that ancient Rome still influences perceptions of Egypt is just bad history. It ignores the complexities, changes and contradictions of such a huge stretch of time. Anyway, why don’t they start with ancient Greece, which borrowed Egypt’s art in Kouroi statues, while Herodotus saw it as a mysterious, exotic other? By lumping 2,000 years into one unbroken wall of western prejudice, this show kills the art it conspicuously fails to love. Surely it’s obvious that when, say, Andy Warhol portrayed Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Kenneth Williams mugged it up in Carry On Cleo they were saying something about the 1960s, not the first century BC? Not that they’re in this show, which instead slops together some Victorian art and so-so contemporary work to make its tenuous point about Cleopatra.

Pastime in Ancient Egypt by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1864. Photograph: Walter White/Harris Museum & Art Gallery

There are some gems here but they all kick against the exhibition’s thesis. A Roman-era depiction of the emperor Diocletian worshiping a mummified bull dressed as a pharaoh shows the cultures interacting. And a Roman portrait of a boy that was placed on his mummy shows creative mixing of Egyptian ritual and Roman artistic realism.

The Romantic architect Sir John Soane is one of the Egyptomaniacs who avoids the show’s simplicities. In a design from his architectural office, he makes plain why he prefers the “sublime” art of Egypt to European classicism. Simply by juxtaposing St Paul’s and the Great Pyramid in an architectural drawing, Soane shows how the majesty of the ancient Egyptian structure dwarfs Wren’s cathedral.

Canopic jar by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, c1790.
Canopic jar by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, c1790. Photograph: Kevin Percival/Victoria and Albert Museum

Yet Soane’s intoxicated studies of Egyptian architecture are shown in a dry little alcove, shoehorned into a very abstract “context” of the growth of European imperialism. Across the corridor is one of the world’s strangest books, the enormous Description of Egypt, which Napoleon commissioned from the team of academics he took with him when he invaded what was then part of the Ottoman empire in 1798. Napoleon wasn’t yet an emperor but was already thinking imperialistically – and with a Romantic sense of history. “From the top of those pyramids, 40 centuries are contemplating you,” he told his troops about him.

The devil is in detail. If this show explored such stories in depth it would have much more to say about the entanglement of archeology and empire than it manages with its inchoate rage. The cultural theorist Edward Said argued in his book Orientalism that Napoleon’s cultural project constructed the “orient” as something to be “known” and hence controlled by European empires. If only this exhibition followed his subtle analysis of it. There’s a ridiculous expression of Victorian orientalism here: a painting by Edwin Long called The Gods and Their Makers that shows women anachronistically in a harem making the little Shabti figures found in Egyptian tombs. This is pure Victorian fantasy – including a black servant attending the strikingly pale “Egyptian” women.

Egyptian Head Disappearing into Descending Clouds by David Hockney, 1961.
Egyptian Head Disappearing into Descending Clouds by David Hockney, 1961. Photograph: © York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery)

The vulgarity of this painting matches the bandaged horror stories of Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle, as archeology inspired ever more lurid images of Egypt. There’s no stranger example of western Egyptomania than Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, a cinema built as an over the top recreation of an Egyptian temple in 1922, the year Tutankhamun’s tomb was found by Howard Carter. Why isn’t Hollywood properly covered? The mummy horror genre is barely touched on, with an early edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale Lot 249 and a slightly silly video by Sara Sallam called You Died Again on Screen. “Two hundred years of theater and cinema have cemented mummies as figures of horror and evil in western popular culture,” says the caption chidingly.

Yet ironically the archaeologist Howard Carter, often vilified as a colonial Indiana Jones, is revealed here as a sensitive artist. His 1908 watercolor of a hoopoe perching in a tomb, apparently protected by a wall painting of a vulture goddess, expresses a passion and awe for ancient Egypt that’s just a breath away from worshiping its gods. This exhibition wants us to stop our love affair with this lost world but it can’t.

At Sainsbury Centre, Norwich, until 1 January

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