The eternal Diva

28 June – 6 October 2013

Few historical figures divide public opinion as much as Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Ancient Egypt (69–30 BC). More than 2000 years after her death, her eventful life and enigmatic character seem to have lost none of their fascination. The selection of some 200 outstanding paintings, sculptures, photographs, films and video works shown in the exhibition allow viewers to get a better understanding of the complex nature of this eternal diva.

The exhibition´s central thesis is that every era created its own distinctive image of Cleopatra – and that every era created the image of Cleopatra it deserved. That the cultural memory has long since turned the last Ptolemaic queen into a ‘mythical sign’ is amply demonstrated by the countless ways in which the Cleopatra myth has been refigured and recycled since antiquity.

The exhibition examines this extensive repertoire of images and seeks to peel away the layers of narrative that obscure the historical figure: her carefully calculated self-representation that bridged the conflicting realms of Hellenistic kingship and Egyptian theocracy, the blend of erotic appeal and astute realpolitik and the amalgamation of her theatricalisation of politics with the political instrumentalisation of her character at the hands of her opponents as well as its appropriation by her admirers.

The Roman Empire, heading for absolute hegemony, instrumentalised her as the key trophy of its own foundation myth. The modern era celebrated her as an icon of female power, an aesthetic ideal and the ultimate embodiment of the ‘other’, alluring and alarming in equal measure. For centuries Cleopatra has served as a projection screen for the fantasies and role plays of a changing Western society. Her suicide immortalised her as a great tragic heroine, but it also turned her image into a distorted reflection of the cultural, societal and political aspirations of the time.

Few of the written sources and images produced in her lifetime have come down to us. Most of what we think we know about Cleopatra can be traced back to stories and depictions brought into circulation after her death. At the same time, she is one of the central crystallisation points of the Western fascination with Egypt. Her tragic story fired the imagination of numerous writers, composers and artists, inspiring works of great aesthetic quality and emotional density. She became a prime motif in Western art – from the classically inspired ideals of the Renaissance to the Baroque theatre of passions and the orientalist fantasies of the nineteenth century. The artistic reception of Cleopatra in the twentieth century shifted to stage and screen productions, offering broad audiences new visual role models and new ways of identifying with the ancient heroine.

The interdisciplinary exhibition is divided into twelve thematic sections that are staged as associative experiential spaces. Antique sculptures (for example portraits of Cleopatra and other Ptolemaic queens in the Hellenistic or Egyptian tradition) are juxtaposed with European paintings and sculptures. At the same time, the exhibition examines the cultural legacy of the eternal diva and her function as a role model that allowed women of different social and cultural backgrounds to strike a grand pose (staged portraits of society ladies and portraits of celebrated stage actresses and film stars in theatrical costumes). The significance of Cleopatra as a Pop and subculture idol and as a glamorous advertising icon is illustrated by publicity campaigns, video clips and photographs.

The story told by the exhibition is framed by a prologue and an epilogue. Based on the argument that our view of Cleopatra is primarily filtered through the lens of Plutarch, Shakespeare and Elizabeth Taylor, these framing images are Andy Warhol’s silk screen prints: Blue Liz as Cleopatra and Silver Liz as Cleopatra of 1963. Elizabeth Taylor, celebrated as the last of the great divas of the silver screen and the ultimate incarnation of Cleopatra, is firmly rooted in the cultural memory of our time. Her serial, intangible appearance suggests that Cleopatra too can only be captured in an elusive sketch that traces the affective impact she had while she was alive and the images she continues to inspire.

Conceived as a ‘school of seeing’, the exhibition employs a wide range of visual analogies to encourage visitors to approach familiar images from a different perspective and to look at them with a fresh eye. There is no one true face of Cleopatra.

Back to the exhibition view

Show bibliography
  1. Foto: David Ertl, 2013© Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschla

Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland

Museumsmeile Bonn
Friedrich-Ebert-Allee 4
53113 Bonn
T +49 228 9171–200

Opening hours

Mondays closed
Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.
Thursdays–Sundays, 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
(including public holidays even those which fall on Mondays)

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