This magnificent piece of pop archaeology is full of songs, statues, gems, gods and gold – reminding us that this pharaoh was no warrior king, just a frail boy who loved his boomerangs
It is not the gold that takes your breath away, it’s the craft. More than 3,300 years ago, Egypt’s top artists – we don’t know their names – were summoned to create all the equipment their young pharaoh Tutankhamun would need in the afterlife. Their creations are some of the most graceful and intimate masterpieces of all time – and this sumptuous selection is at the Saatchi for the last leg what claims to be Tut’s farewell tour before he and his treasures get a permanent home at Giza’s new Grand Egyptian Museum next year.
Behold what they made for the boy: vessels of translucent white calcite with delicately carved handles look like the work of some Renaissance mannerist rather than the products of a civilisation contemporary with Stonehenge. Tutankhamun’s art even anticipates much later styles. A bed has lovely lion paws carved with a superb eye. A dainty little portable board game could be played today in the back of a boy-king’s limo. Statues of the pharaoh stride forward with a quality that defies gender stereotypes.
Everywhere, there are minute refinements. It’s not enough for bows and staffs to be slender and covered with gold, of which there is plenty – they also have to be inlaid with precious stones and decorated with tiny falcons or cobras. The colours are an endlessly changing symphony. The warm glow of gold flows like the Nile through the exhibition, connecting everything. Against it unfolds a theatre of moods created by the russet of a redwood chest, the cool blue of a glazed statuette, the white ice of minerals.
Yet it isn’t all about aesthetic splendour. You can never forget that you are contemplating the grave of an individual. The most moving objects are wooden cases made to hold the food Tutankhamun would need in the afterlife, shaped like loaves and other edibles. One is even formed like a duck carcass. Seeing these humble vessels for an afterlife picnic adds a sense of vulnerability to the treasures. They remind you that this is about death and the craving for something beyond it.
The creators of this dazzling show have pitched it nicely. There’s no point pretending an exhibition about Tutankhamun can, or should, be a scholarly affair. It’s pop archaeology and you’ve got to have music (they even play the song King Tut but not, sadly, the Steve Martin version). There are films, too, and cinematic lighting. Full-size replicas of the wall paintings in the tomb combine with spooky shadows to create the perfect atmosphere. It’s Hollywood, but it works. And as you explore further into the realm of the dead monarch, your heart begins to pound.
There’s a thrill of terror to the statue that stood guard for millennia outside the sealed inner door of Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. It portrays the king’s ka – part of the Egyptian concept of the soul – in looming blackened wood. His gold skirt and headdress shine with sinister energy; on his forehead is a cobra. He is menacing, but it’s all for show. Other portraits of the king, who seems to have actually been a frail soul who walked with a stick, show him hunting and crushing his enemies – actually treading them down – yet he seems too gentle for all this slaughter. And that’s before you see the little armchair made for him when he was a child, buried with him when he died at the age of 19.
Tutankhamun became pharaoh when he was nine, after the death of his father, Akhenaten. Ancient Egypt was a civilisation that loved its old ways, keeping to beliefs and a style rooted in prehistory. Akhenaten tried to overturn it all. He replaced Ra with a new god called the Aten and ordered artists to portray people warts and all. They obliged with groteseque images. In Tutankhamun’s reign, the old gods were restored. You can see that here from such divine images as a hawk with a golden solar disc on its head that represents the god Horus.
Yet the artistic revolution that took place during his father’s reign surely explains why there is so much ingenuity and lifelikeness here, from the portrait of Tutankhamun riding a tamed beast to a gold shrine on a sledge covered with images of the pharaoh glittering among his gods.
And then, finally, you meet him, lying there peacefully, covered in amulets and gold, with gold finger coverings and gold sandals, a scarab beetle sitting on his chest between folded golden arms that hold the royal symbols of the flail and crook. Except it’s not really Tutankhamun’s mummy beneath all these authentic charms found on his body, just a subtle mock-up. To see that, or his inner coffins and unforgettable death mask, you will have to go to the Grand Egyptian Museum when it opens. Well, they can’t be blamed for holding something back.
Still, there’s a real warmth to this encounter. It even includes a glove whose linen has survived millennia. Uncanny to think it was worn by the youth whose image is depicted here in so many ways, and with such skill and tenderness. The exhibition ends with a colossal statue of Tutankhamun but it feels far less telling than his games, or the food he took into eternity. Tut was no tyrant, no warlord, no politician. What he really liked to do was play with his boomerangs, of which there is a fine selection here.