Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 September 1999
Issue No. 447
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

The Louvre revisited

By Jill Kamel

As part of the legacy of the late President François Mitterand, the Louvre has been in turmoil. "The form of the city changes more quickly than that of the human heart," wrote the poet Charles Baudelaire. So it is that new galleries have been opened up and hundreds of masterpieces brought out of cold storage, while the old favourites found themselves shunted around mercilessly from one place to another. Yet never fear -- the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Mona Lisa still have pride of place.

As for the reorganisation of the Egyptian galleries, the result is quite simply brilliant. There are now two circuits, one chronological and one thematic. The latter in particular is so impressive, that I would strongly suggest that something like it be introduced to liven up our museums in Egypt.

But before we reached Egypt, there was a new section covering the history of the palace to negotiate -- not to mention the glass pyramid that forms the museum's new entrance. The former traces the architectural development of the building from the fortress constructed by Philippe Auguste around 1190 through to the recent work by modern architects for the "Grand Louvre" project. It even includes an archaeological tour through a newly-excavated area, which adds much to what is already an interesting and enlightening experience.

As for the 21-metre-high glass pyramid designed by Chinese-American architect M. Pei through which all visitors now enter, while I grant that it ensures an adequate flow of light to the vast subterranean reception area of the Hall Napoleon, it is, in my opinion, a visual nightmare. The glass is neither frosted nor tinted, and is dearly in need of a good going-over with Glance! Rising at an angle that is more reminiscent of the squat "Red Pyramid" at Meidum than the apogee of perfection that is Giza, it nevertheless manages effectively to obscure the magnificent facades of all the surrounding buildings.

As you approach the Louvre from the Place de la Concorde (where one of the obelisks from the Luxor Temple stands today) through the Jardin des Tuileries, all you can see is a polluted triangle. Frankly, if you'll forgive the pun, this pyramid is pointless. Usually, I would be delighted to see evidence of Pharaonic Egypt's influence on art and architecture anywhere around the world. Not even table napkins and toilet paper illustrated with objects from Tutankhamun's tomb following the exhibition of his treasures abroad in the 1970s were able to distress me. But at Pei's glass pyramid at the Louvre, I draw the line. It is a monstrosity. A glass mastaba would have been just as effective in lighting up the reception area, with its information desk, book stalls, lifts, stairways and numerous escalators -- and far easier on the unsuspecting eye, besides.

Fortunately, once inside, one finds that the display of Pharaonic antiquities has in no way been marred by such pretentious and wrongheaded "tributes".

In the thematic circuit, the objects are grouped so as to highlight various aspects of everyday life in ancient Egypt. This makes for an easier understanding of a society remote from us in time than the conventional chronological sequence followed in the Cairo Museum and in other Pharaonic collections around the world.

Because most of the buildings of Ancient Egypt, including the royal palace, were made of wood and sun-dried brick (stone being reserved for tombs and temples), most of the surviving structures are of a funerary nature. This gives the erroneous impression that the Ancient Egyptians were obsessively preoccupied with the afterlife. Yet there is abundant, less monumental evidence to the contrary, and by devoting a series of galleries to everyday life, the Louvre is able to draw back the curtain on the inner reality of a society.

Thus we find a model of a nobleman's house, based on tomb representations, along with early dynastic plaster models found in tombs. Furniture, including chairs, beds and head-rests, is exhibited, as well as chests for family treasures, richly inlaid with ivory, and even implements for cleaning the house, ma'asha (broom) and futa (cleaning cloth) included. The overall impression is both delightful and informative.

Another hall is devoted to eating habits and diet. While we are all of us familiar with those tables laden with countless varieties of food and drink that are depicted in ancient tombs, offering-bearers carrying an assortment of food in liquid and solid form, and reliefs of well-stocked larders, there is so much to be learned here -- from ancient baskets used for storage, amphorae from a wine cellar, a model of a butcher's shop and a show-case displaying various dried products, including sycamore figs, fruit and different varieties of grain, all appropriately labelled. There is also a large papyrus showing a nobleman called Tapemankh sitting at a table which is laden, not with food, but with texts describing numerous delicacies. The translation from hieroglyphics of his à la carte menu makes fascinating reading, including as it does measures of meat, pigeon, bread, beer, an assortment of cakes and even an éclair au chocolat.

Ancient Egyptians were fastidious about cleanliness. Women, especially, took great pains with their toilet. They washed their bodies with particular attention before meals, shaved their limbs with bronze razors with curved blades and rubbed the skin with perfumed oils. Special care was taken with the hair, which was washed, anointed with oils and fashioned into curls and plaits. On display is a relief of a noblewoman having her hair dressed by a servant, the implements and make-up she used daily, her wigs and ointments, as well as jewellery for her personal adornment.

The section devoted to scribes and the scribal profession is particularly interesting. Not only are there statues of such scribes and examples of the tools of their profession (including a bronze paper-knife), but also religious texts, personal letters and official documents. One showcase describes the manufacture of paper from papyrus, another covers the development of writing from the hieroglyphic script through the hieratic (cursive script) and its later development (demotic). There is even an account of an ancient archive, which shows the particular skill of scribes in the administration of resources based on measuring, inspecting, verifying and documenting.

A small room is devoted to entertainment, in which we learn of the ancient Egyptians' love of music. On display are drums, tambourines, sistrums, castanets, harps and lutes. There are delightful statuettes of people (and sometimes animals) playing musical instruments. As for indoor games, these were often extremely imaginative. A great favourite was senet, which appears to have been similar to checkers. It was played on a rectangular board divided into 30 squares arranged in three rows, with carved black and white pieces. Another board game used finely carved discs of wood, horn, ivory, stone and copper, about 10 centimetres in diameter.

The life of the working masses is illustrated through reliefs of labourers along with the implements they would have used at different seasons of the agricultural year. Hunting is portrayed using reliefs of the animal chase along with the weapons used. And the work of craftsmen -- in one of the most impressive sections -- is embodied in polychrome reliefs showing workshops in which workers are producing fine statuary while, on a shelf above, the products of their labour are displayed -- among them, a cat feeding her kittens, along with statuettes of Isis and Osiris carved in exquisite detail with gold inlays.

As I wandered through the galleries, I couldn't help reflecting on the plans under way for the new National Museum in Giza. Already, controversy is brewing over which of the masterpieces from the Pharaonic, Coptic, Graeco-Roman and Islamic museums should be transferred there. It occurred to me that such a thematic display would be a practicable and commendable answer: presenting objects not in chronological sequence, but in a sequence of displays designed to reveal different aspects of life from predynastic times, through Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, Coptic and Islamic to the modern age. What a rich saga of change and continuity that would be.

Meanwhile in Paris, I saw countless visitors from different lands pressing eagerly forward for a closer view of the objects on display, staring intently at clear and well-written labels, or turning for more information to large multilingual laminated sheets that could be lifted from strategically placed wooden containers. It was not only very beautiful, but also very well organised.

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