Given our centuries-long fascination with ancient Egypt, the stories we are told about it have a surprisingly limited cast of characters. Cleopatra we know, even if she does look suspiciously like Elizabeth Taylor. Rameses II, with his well-preserved mummy and colossal statue, we’ve just about heard of. And it is Tutankhamun’s smooth, boyish features that come most quickly to mind, thanks to the infamous tale of his intact tomb’s rediscovery by Howard Carter in 1922. Beyond this trio, though, there are just shadows.
In an attempt to make one of these dim figures clearer, the Palais des Beaux-Arts in the northern French city of Lille has mounted the first ever exhibition based on the life of Senusret III, a pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom who ruled in the 19th century BC. Thanks to the combination of his successful military campaigns and diplomatic dexterity, his realm enjoyed a period of peace and prosperity that allowed all sorts of crafts and buildings to flourish.
Helpfully – for the 21st-century observer, at least – Senusret was also an image-maker. As you wander around the halls of the Palais, he watches you from every side, carved into quartz, transformed into a sphinx, perched on top of a cube. And he used these images for political as well as decorative ends. In many cases the sculptor has given him a young, lithe body with an elderly, lined face. His mouth is turned down at the sides and his enormous ears stick out from his headdress – this was a king who wanted his subjects to know that no matter his age, he was wiser, shrewder and more perceptive than they were.
As well as representations of the pharaoh, the 350 objects gathered by the Palais for this exhibition include jewellery, weapons, papyrus and tools. Pleasingly, space is made for artefacts used by the lowest of Senusret’s subjects, too. Though less splendid than the amethyst anklet or golden pectorals also on display, the simple jar and the twisted remains of a sandal are far more evocative of the people who lived and worked in the margins of all this opulence.
The Palais des Beaux-Arts is France’s second-largest museum collection, after the Louvre. Co-operation with that institution is everywhere – one of the curators of this exhibition, Guillemette Andreu-Lanoë, is also the Louvre’s director of Egyptian antiquities. As I bustle around the exhibition with her, she says that coming to Lille has enabled her to return to “her first love, the Middle Kingdom”, and to display some of the Louvre’s treasures to greater advantage.
The extraordinary carved lintel from a temple in Medamud, which is so well preserved that it’s almost impossible to believe it is over 2,000 years old, is wonderfully illuminated at the Palais. In Paris, she tells me, “It’s between two windows and you can’t really see anything.”
This exhibition is about French cultural politics as well as Egyptian, it turns out. On the day I visit, dozens of French journalists have come up from Paris to witness this rare collaboration of the Louvre with a regional museum.
In stark contrast to the dark rooms where Senusret’s objects are housed, the museum’s foyer above is a blaze of brilliance. Here, two contemporary artists – Antony Gormley and Wolfgang Laib – have exhibited works inspired by the Egyptian belief in life after death. Laib’s Passageway, in particular, provides an arresting final image. Each of the 100 tiny brass boats travelling across the marble floor rests on a small heap of rice – a poignant reminder that even the greatest of civilisations will be diminished in the end.