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Jul 2001 Journal

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Art Notes

I am fascinated by Cleopatra. From her seduction of Julius Caesar, to whom she unfurled herself in a rug, and Mark Anthony, whom she feted on her galleon, to her most sensuous death by snake bite, Cleo is the seminal femme fatale. The British Museum pays tribute in an exhibition Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth (to August 26). A huge frieze filters the legendary beauty through Hollywood icons Vivien Leigh, Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert, but the exhibition also debunks a few myths.

The great Greco-Egyptian queen, who lived around 69 BC, was not the first but the seventh Cleopatra and, far from a siren, she was short, plump and not at all pretty.

Amid rows of ancient sculptures - broken nose, fixed stare and garlanded with the cobra headband of Egyptian nobility - you feel you have entered a mausoleum in which Cleo’s life and death are suggested but never real. Some portraits are ascribed to her, in others she resembles her mentor, the disdainful Ptolomaic Queen Arsinoe II. An l8th century engraving shows Cleo as a Western European goddess, and a l9th century painting features novelist Catherine Lady Stepney in full Cleo regalia – fancy dress was de rigeur with the Victorian literati.

After Egypt’s defeat by Octavius Caesar, Cleopatra was depicted as a vanquished woman, an affirmation of the power of Rome. Such symbolism conflicts with many sculptures ascribed to her which are masculine in character, representing the Ptolomaic queens as hard fighters. There are papyrus details of a royal ordinance attributed to her in which she grants tax privileges to Anthony’s right hand man with her signature and the potent decree: “Make it happen!”  Cleopatra was celebrated for her political acumen and her ability to manipulate the religious and ritualistic forces of her day. The basalt statue of the priest Hor with his keen Nilotic face (AD 50), suggesting the unbending rigidity of the priesthood, makes you realise she had no easy job. And Cleo’s love for Mark Anthony was hardly a bed of roses. After giving her twins, he fled to a more political marriage in Rome with Octavian’s sister. However, he couldn’t keep away from Cleo long and returned with some of her territories he’d clawed back from Rome. Ironically, they included Gaza.

Is competition valid among artists? In introducing Richard Attenborough, who opened the envelope that launched this year’s  £30,000 Jerwood Prizewinner, 31 year old Katie Pratt on her way, Alan Grieve, chairman of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, was hesitant. Originality is what usually wins prizes, and Pratt’s oil abstracts are built on layers of colour to generate texture and movement. The Plough moves more like water than earth, and she has applied blobs of pink that resemble screwed-up tissue paper on a cobalt blue surface. Among the other short-listed artists, Peter Archer’s oil studies of a broken, disused chimney amid trees in changing seasons, are ominous and bordering on abstract in their message of abandon, disuse and a larger sense of eternity.
Gloria Tessler

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