Louvre Exhibit Chronicles the West's Love Affair With Egypt

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the source of my introduction, when I was still a boy, to the Western World's fascination with all things Egyptian.

An older sister was so taken with the charm and mystery of the woman Liz portrayed in the film, ``Cleopatra,'' that she immediately took to doing her hair and applying makeup as if she were some latter-day Nefertiti.

Yet the West's swoon over Egypt is much older - though not always in considerably better taste - than Joseph Mankiewicz's 1963 cinematic behemoth, as a new exhibit at the Louvre chronicles.

Aptly titled, ``Egyptomania,'' the show depicts the manner in which ancient Egypt influenced Western art over the two centuries from 1730-1930: from the Egypt-inspired furnishings ordered by Marie Antoinettte, to the Baccarat perfume bottles and Cartier light fixtures created after the discovery in 1922 of Tutankhamen's (King Tut's) tomb.

The exhibit disabuses the visitor of some long-held assumptions, such as the notion that Napoleon's campaign to Egypt spawned Europe's fascination with pyramids and obelisks. As the show's first pieces reveal, the interest in Egypt existed well before Napoleon's time, in Italy through Egypt's influence on the Roman Empire, and in France from the use of Egyptian symbols by Free Masons - symbols carried down from returning Crusaders in centuries past.

The exhibit also shows how the sense of mystery and lack of definition often associated with ancient Egypt allowed its symbols to captivate imaginations. Egypt could be anything to anybody, and thus be used in the furniture of French royalty as easily as it could fit in the engravings of the French Revolution.

And every time the craze seemed to wane, something would happen to revive it: Napoleon's campaign (1798) and the artifacts he brought back - such as the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde - led to the heavily Egypt-influenced Empire style. In 1869, the Suez Canal was completed, ushering in another bout, and then in 1922, came the opening of Tut's tomb.

The exhibit shows how the sets and costumes of 19th-century opera were heavily marked by the Egyptian influence, while Art Nouveau and then Art Deco in this century offered a new interpretation.

The longevity of Egyptomania is suggested by a 1797 French engraving that shows a funeral for ``martyrs'' of the Revolution in the present-day Tuileries Gardens, a huge pyramid looming to the side.

No such pyramid was ever located there. But today, just east of the Tuileries in the courtyard of the Louvre, visitors enter the museum through contemporary architect I.M. Pei's steel-and-glass pyramid.

The man who had the final word on the museum's redesign, French President Francois Mitterrand, apparently found the idea of a pyramid at the Louvre irresistible.

* `Egyptomania' continues at the Louvre through April 18 and then travels to Ottawa and Vienna.

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