On Tutankhamun


Above is a picture from my room, my little corkboard on my desk. On the board, as well as the local swimming pool opening times and a Tracey Emin postcard, is a picture I took in 2013 while on holiday with my family in Berlin. It is an image of a statue of an Ancient Egyptian royal on display in the Neues Museum, Berlin, a few metres away from the resting place of Queen Nefertiti’s famous bust.

Bust of Egyptian Prince (relative of Nefertiti), Neues Museum, Berlin

While I passionately love the Nefertiti bust to the point of obsession, and have visited her several times over the past few years, I also look at this boy every day and feel something different but equally powerful. I think he has one of the most beautiful faces that have survived from the Ancient world, and his relation to Nefertiti, stylistically at least, is obvious in the elegance of form, ambiguity of expression and emotional presence.

He is thought to be Tutankhamun, the famous boy-king, but this can’t be proven definitively. If not Tutankhamun, he would have been a close relative, part of the royal household. I find his expression very tragic, whether he is or isn’t a recognisable figure to us (something that wouldn’t matter very much to those who lived over 3,000 years ago). If he is Tutankhamun, then we are well aware of his short and painful life, his suffering that we can project onto in his enigmatic expression. If his name has been lost to time, then the individual beauty of his face still exists as a ghost, an echo of a body and identity that has otherwise disappeared.

He looks very young. His mouth is slightly twisted with pubertal anxiety. I think he looks lonely, sad, uncertain; his eyes look through you, to some other world, dreams of the future. The damage to the sculpture almost gives his face more corporeal energy; his gaze more shifting, his lips more expressive, his eyebrows more questioning. The gaps in the surface of the stone leave more space for empathetic connection, for human imperfection.

Thick flaking strips of black paint define his brows and eyelashes, delicate chips of red pigment cling to his lips. The bust has an air, very seductive, of just holding together, like it’s made of ash rather than stone; ready at any moment to disintegrate into dust, sand, wisps to float away on a breeze of museum air-conditioning; as insubstantial and ethereal as the body of the youth whose likeness it has stolen.

Rosie Dahlstrom: Stone Prince 4, watercolour and ink on paper, 29cm x 21cm (2021)

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