Monday, November 25, 2013

Egyptomania Hits the Dahesh

Yesterday the Dahesh Museum Gift Shop in Hudson Square played host to a capacity crowd for the debut of Bob Brier’s new book, Egyptomania.  Brier is, of course, the celebrated egyptologist who has written eight books, including The Murder of Tutankhamen, and was host of television’s The Great Egyptians and The Mummy Detective

Though an academic with multiple degrees (including actually getting a medical degree to better understand the underlying cause of death of the mummies he has examined), Brier brings to his field of expertise an infectious sense of fun and a true sense of wonder.  Rarely have I laughed so much at a lecture, nor can I remember having been regaled with stories by an expert who is as much entertainer as academic. 

Brier’s book chronicles our three thousand year obsession with the Land of the Pharaohs, and provides a wonderful juxtaposition between the learned (his chronicle of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, complete with a retinue of savants to provides what might be history’s first ethnographic study) and the commercial, cataloging “mummy” sheet music, Cleopatra cigarettes and mummy movies featuring everyone from Boris Karloff to Peter Cushing.

Brier argues that no ancient civilization compares to Egypt for its romantic hold on our imagination.  He thinks this is a mixture of our fascination with mummies (here – easily recognizable – are human beings who walked the earth thousands of years ago); the art of Egyptian hieroglyphics; and, of course, what he calls “the Indiana Jones effect.”  Egypt has inspired exotic adventure fiction from pens as diverse as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer and H. Rider Haggard – and this touch of exotica continues in the films of Steven Spielberg and Stephen Sommers.

Your correspondent had the pleasure of interviewing Brier at his home in the Bronx, which is crammed with enough Egyptian artifacts to gladden the heart of Indiana Jones.  That interview, along with a more detailed review of his book, will follow in a few weeks.

In other Dahesh news, the country’s premiere museum-without-walls, has taken the remarkable step of purchasing Frederic, Lord Leighton’s imposing Star of Bethlehem, to expand the scope of the current exhibition, Sacred Visions: Nineteenth-Century Biblical Art from the Dahesh Museum Collection, on view until February 16, 2014 at the Museum of Biblical Art.  Curators and directors from each institution immediately agreed to add the painting to the current installation, as this presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Leighton alongside other like-themed treasures.  The exhibition traces the renewed interest in Biblical myths following the expansion of biblical archeology and the advent of photography, which produced travel books with pictures of the Holy Land.

Curator Alia Nour said last night, “We decided to remove two smaller paintings to make room for this very large one and started to work on a new label. We deemed it worthwhile to give visitors access to one of the most powerful biblical works Leighton produced during the 1860s.”

New Yorkers who have not yet seen the show now have added impetus, and those who have already seen it an added reason to see it once again.  The Museum of Biblical Art is at 1865 Broadway at 61st Street, and admission is free.  For more information, call 212.408.1500.

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