By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: April 12, 2012
In many ways the art of dynastic Egypt brought nature to a standstill, freezing the figure in an elegant, quietly pulsing suspended animation. Especially in its grandest, most monumental expression — the eerie, somnolent statues of the gods and of the pharaohs who were their earthly junior-god emissaries — Egypt offers us the sleekest, longest-running style in the history of art. It is also probably as instantly recognizable and firmly imprinted on human consciousness as any we know.
This style’s consistency is, if you think about it, frightening. It bespeaks an authoritarian power that was consolidated under the first Pharaoh around 3100 B.C., and that, despite political ups and downs, maintained a firm grip on the country’s aesthetic program for nearly three millenniums. The duration of Egyptian art may dull curiosity about how it began, since it is hard imagining a time when it didn’t exist. But of course everything starts somewhere: the high Egyptian style did not spring fully formed from the forehead of Osiris, god of the afterlife.
This is demonstrated by “The Dawn of Egyptian Art,” a sublime, view-shifting exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art dominated foremost by small, startlingly personable sculptures and vessels from around 3900 to 2649 B.C. The show’s around 190 objects include animal sculptures and figures carved in wood, ivory and stone or modeled in clay; ceramic vessels painted with boats and their regal occupants. There are game boards, also of carved stone, including one in the shape of a coiled rattlesnake, and numerous wafer-thin hand-size stone palettes for mixing makeup whose minimally inflected silhouettes nonetheless intimate various animals, including fish, lions and a pair of mating turtles.
One of the show’s most valuable lessons is that the art of dynastic Egypt was able to suspend nature in such perfect stasis in part because the art of early Egypt devised so many lively ways to distill and abbreviate it or to precisely depict it. In this sense the show attests once more to the tension between the abstract and representational as one of the animating engines of visual form.
“The Dawn of Egyptian Art” concentrates on the art of Egypt’s predynastic and early dynastic periods, from around 3900 to 2649 B.C. The predynastic period in particular was not really identified as such until the late 19th century, about 100 years after Napoleon’s otherwise disastrous expedition to Egypt laid the foundations for Egyptology. Some of the most important excavations of this material have been conducted only in the last several decades.
The show was organized by Diana Craig Patch, associate curator in the Met’s department of Egyptian art, who has installed it with exceptional clarity in the not-always-felicitous lower-level galleries of the Robert Lehman Wing. The objects she has brought together come mostly from grave sites and temples, the preoccupation with equipping the dead for the afterlife having preceded the Pharaohs by many centuries. They include about 80 works from the Met’s collection, most of which usually hide in plain sight, on display in the opening gallery of the Egyptian wing, which tends to be the one we speed through on our way to all things Pharaonic.
In this exhibition Egypt’s often overlooked beginnings move to center stage, with the Met pieces supplemented by outstanding loans from a dozen other museums in the United States and Europe. The show achieves minor miracles like bringing together three small amulets in the shape of hippopotamuses — they may be pregnant and may have been worn as protection by pregnant women — from the collections of the Met, the British Museum and the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. The label points out that the Met and British Museum pieces are so similar, they could have been made by the same person.
More showstopping highlights include a large white alabaster baboon dating from around 3100 B.C. and lent by the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. Heralding the arrival of Pharaonic perfection, this creature could not be more commanding; the ruff of fur around its face is a de facto royal headdress. From the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford in Britain comes a slightly earlier, truly ravishing figure: a tiny standing woman carved in lapis lazuli that was probably imported from Afghanistan. She folds her arms delicately across her waist and seems at once naked and clothed in some clingy, semi-transparent garment. The hair on her head is a series of tiny snail-shell curls, and that at her pubis is a triangle of sharp little dings, made with a hammer and punch. But the real miracle is the marvelous subtle sway of her back and the slight contrapposto of her legs.
The rougher, ostensibly cruder animals and figures that predate these objects and lead up to them are the heart of the show. You’ll find a hint of that implacable baboon and its sculptural ingenuity in the small carved stone heads of two hippos, one above the other, who, like the turtles, may also be mating. The hippo is frequently sighted in the show’s early section, mostly on vases and bowls painted with vibrant hunting scenes, and has a parting cameo in the show’s small, somewhat tacked-on closing section in the form of a charming 12th-to-13th Dynasty faience version, popularly known as “William,” a gift-shop favorite.
Other premonitions of things to come include the show’s opening work: a carved-stone image of a jackal the size of a large kitten. Shown midstep, perhaps on the hunt for dinner, it still summons some of the streamlined stillness that permeates the later dynastic figures, which are so often also stepping forward, but completely motionless, going nowhere. Less appealing in several ways is a door socket in the form of a bound captive that feels sculpturally forced while also manifesting some of the aggression that was undoubtedly necessary to achieve the unification of Egypt.
The Egyptian penchant for repeating lines of animals and figures, which persisted in reliefs for centuries, is evident in a small ceramic box nearby that is painted with rows of flamingoes. The repetition undoubtedly replicates reality to some degree — flocks of flamingoes, standing in water, often line up in surprisingly regular ways — but it also manifests a desire for order and control over nature. And these schematic birds, which are divided neatly into three elements indicating leg, body and neck-head, also reflect the closeness in the Egyptian mind of image making to writing that would eventually result in hieroglyphics.
At several points in this show single vitrines have the complexity of small exhibitions unto themselves. This happens in a large gallery that starts with a superb cluster of painted vases, where each subsequent display introduces a different figurative style. Examples include a group, in ivory, so geometric as to be alien robots, and some undulant pottery figures with arms gracefully raised in either lament or celebration, most prominently the Brooklyn Museum’s justly renowned “Bird Woman.”
Similarly, just outside this gallery, several vitrines almost seem like bestiaries, organized sometimes by material and sometimes by species. One of the best features a series of rough-edged but wonderfully accurate creatures, including a wild cow, carefully chipped out of flint. At their center is displayed a cylindrical vase on which an even wilder cow has been incised in a seemingly continuous looping line, a free, lanky form that resembles a Texas longhorn dancing on its toes.
With opening acts like these it is small wonder that Egyptian art lasted as long as it did.