While you're at it

So the amateur--I mean avid--art fans are swarming the Kimbell to see this year's Big Show, and sure enough, Matisse and Picasso are worth the drive to Fort Worth and the elbow-digging crowds. But in the process of obsessing over these two masters' obsessions with each other, you may miss another fascinating world, one just across the museum's corridor.

The Kimbell's adjacent exhibition, a kind of supporting player or second-stringer, if you will, is impressive enough to be any museum's main attraction--if it weren't competing with the works of two cantankerous modern geniuses. Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience is a traveling show of historic interest and beauty. Packed with 4,000-year-old artifacts, the show's focus is faience (pronounced "fay-ahns"), an ancient ceramic used to craft much of that era's most fascinating and brilliant objects. From ritual statuettes to tiles to vessels to jewelry, the glossy blue-green stuff represented life and good health and was used almost exclusively by royalty. As with the pyramids, even with all of our technical prowess we can't quite figure out how these artisans pulled it off.

We know faience is made primarily of ground quartz, flint, and a colorant like copper; we know that it was sculpted and carved like clay and that the firing process gave it a natural high glaze. We know that these early folks prized the rich blues of real turquoise and lapis lazuli and may have been copying these harder-to-find rocks. But according to the exhibition notes, faience was damn hard to work with. Unforgiving, clumsy, and basically nonelastic, fashioning a simple bowl would prove a challenge for our modern-day ceramists. Looking at the incredibly delicate and detailed handiwork on some of these objects, you have to wonder whether the ancients used some kind of magic wand.

Nonetheless, whole interiors of pyramids are lined with faience tiles, vases were set with tiny veins of faience inlay, and finely carved faience beads decorate funerary figures and rattle around inside musical instruments. Their hues vary from deep sapphire to frothy sea green, though most pervasive is a rich aqua.

And it wasn't a fly-by-night trend; the objects' inceptions range over 3,000 years, from the pre-dynastic era through the heyday of the pharaohs, all the way into the Greco-Roman times. Still, like the unspoken collective agreement not to give away the secret of The Crying Game, all these faience-makers kept the whole process a mystery. Conspicuously absent from their hieroglyphs and tomb paintings and records are any instructions about faience. Meanwhile, our guys are wearing lab coats and tweaking the kiln temperature, trying to reconstruct the process. (If you're thinking, "The truth is out there!" then just go away. An exhibit like this doesn't need your kind.)

In other words, like a Matisse, this is perfect fodder for a museum. You can't see this stuff anywhere else.

--Christina Rees

Gifts of the Nile: Ancient Egyptian Faience is at the Kimbell through April 25. Admission is free. 3333 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth. For information, call (817) 332-8451.

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