By Holland Cotter
OCTOBER 8, 2015
Ancient Egypt is box office gold: Do a show, and people will come. Why? Mummies, Hollywood and Queen Nefertiti certainly contribute to its allure. Also, we tend to identify with Egyptians of thousands of years ago. In art, they look exotic, but not out of reach. They drank beer, collected cats, and wore flip-flops. They yearned to stay young and to live forever, with loved ones nearby and snack food piled high. Who can’t relate to that?
At the same time, they were foreign in ways we can barely imagine, ruled by kings they referred to as “junior gods,” and by gods who had power over all, but had to be flattered, pampered and fed. As for art, they had no word for it. What to us is gorgeous, to them was useful, a ticket to the other side, the life beyond.
Few institutions have done a better job at illuminating that art than the Metropolitan Museum. And it returns to the subject in “Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom,” an exhibition notably low on King Tut bling and high on complex beauty. Opening on Monday, it’s a classic Met product. It assembles some 230 top-shelf objects from more than 30 international collections, with about a third from the Met itself, to tackle an impossibly broad and complicated piece of history.
Oddly, given its central place in Egypt’s past, the Middle Kingdom (circa 2030 to 1650 B.C.) has never had a comprehensive museum showcase till now. Maybe “middle” sounds unsexy, implies incomplete, in progress, unformed. But that wasn’t the case. The Middle Kingdom was a time of specific change and accomplishment. And in a sense what’s most distinctive about its art is precisely its in-between-ness, its demonstration, within a culture that wanted to believe otherwise, that all is flux; nothing is stable; the only reality is change.
A big change came to Egypt with the sputtering close of the previous period, the Old Kingdom, the so-called age of the great pyramids, with its capital at Memphis in the north. Then, for nearly a century, there was anarchic confusion as provincial leaders battled for dominance. Out of the fray, a southern ruler named Mentuhotep II, pharaoh of the 11th dynasty, emerged to take the reins. Then, under Amenemhat I, founder of the 12th dynasty, northern and southern Egypt were reunited.
A sandstone statue of Mentuhotep II, who ruled from around 2051 to 2000 B.C., opens the show. It’s carved in a calculatedly archaic style: stolid, columnar, arms stiffly crossed, knees like knobs, face locked in a noncommittal smile. Old Kingdom and proud, it seems to say, though it was, of course, Middle Kingdom, and innovations in art were underway. The body of a similar figure made later under his direct successor is all sensuous swells and curves. And in a relief depicting an encounter between a pharaoh and a goddess, the fineness of the incised detail — eyebrows, hair, fabric textures — is astonishing. We see power being visually packaged in new ways.
Such shifts in vision, reflecting political and social change, are evident in the show’s second gallery, which has been set up as a kind of royal portrait hall. In the sculpted head of the second pharaoh of the 12th dynasty, Senwosret I, we see Old Kingdom confidence: a youthful, plump-cheeked leader with a broad, no-worries smile. Some 50 years later his successor, Senwosret III, projects an entirely different mood: His face is aged, gaunt, grim. And then comes a famously haunting image of one of the dynasty’s last rulers, Amenemhat III, as a stricken, sleep-deprived child-king who has seen too much.
We don’t know much about any of these men; everything is open to interpretation. Amenemhat III’s face suggests that the Middle Kingdom never completely forgot its origins in chaos, a dreaded state. Anxiety lingers, mitigated by beauty, in other objects, beginning with a glorious female head cut from green-black stone. Identified as a queen or princess, she may once have been part beast, with the body of a sphinx. There’s still something feral in her demure but avid, now empty-eyed gaze. She’s gentle, but wild.
Wildness, implying unpredictability and loss of control, was seldom expressed in Egyptian culture, which patrolled borders and monitored hierarchies. But it’s there, a bit, in Middle Kingdom art, in a tiny pottery figurine of a distraught mourner, in a fragment of battle-scene relief in which human limbs rain from the sky. Such images come as little shocks, like shots of raw violence in TV news.
Middle Kingdom art made room for such things, as it did for contact with the larger ancient world of Crete, the Near East and Nubia. You find their traces in art, traces too contained to be called influences but too deliberate to be accidents. And although Egyptian art placed a high value on tradition, fresh ideas showed up. Spectacularly imaginative royal jewelry dates from this time: belts made from cast-gold cowrie shells; anklets hung with tinkling gold feline claws. So does an ingenious sculptural form, in which a face and feet were carved in high relief from a block of stone with the rest of the block left untouched to create the impression of a squatting or seated figure wrapped in a cloak.
Most block sculptures were commissioned by public officials and other high-placed professionals. Monumentality, signifying importance and permanence, had once been the prerogative of royalty, but was no more. Ordinary people, if they had wealth, or ambition, or found favor at the pharaoh’s court, could memorialize themselves, just as they could emulate funerary practices of a kind once restricted to kings.
And almost anyone, however humble, could participate in the religious cult focused on the savior god Osiris in the pilgrimage city of Abydos. Here the boundary between elite and popular religions blurred. To express your devotion, you set up a shrine, as big as a chapel or as small as a brick, along a processional route. A corresponding corridor of shrinelike things — stelae, altars, miniature obelisks — comes toward the end of the show, which has been organized by an all-Met team led by Adela Oppenheim and including Dieter Arnold, Dorothea Arnold and Kei Yamamoto, with Daniel Kershaw as designer.
Osiris was the god of resurrection. The story went that he was murdered by his evil brother, who hacked his body to bits, after which Isis, his wife and sister, puzzled his flesh together and made him whole again. For ancient Egyptians, staying forever whole was the goal, securing immortality. And art, often inseparable from faith, was both an instrument for survival and an example of it.
You could make it so beautiful that people on earth would treasure it and dazzled gatekeeper-gods would admit you to heaven, no questions asked. Funerary jewelry found on the body of a woman named Senebtisi would have done the trick. Or you could create images of the afterlife as you wanted to live it. I’d look forward to a long retreat in the sycamore grove with a pool that a Middle Kingdom steward named Meketre had, a bit larger than shoebox-size, in his tomb.
Or you could make a bid for immortality in the here and now by going for art of great weight and size. The Middle Kingdom had a thing for large-scale sculpture. The show’s final gallery holds a giant granite head of Amenemhat III. Downstairs in the Met’s Great Hall sits a colossal nine-ton, 10-foot-high stone figure of a 12th-dynasty pharaoh, name uncertain, on long-term loan from the Berlin State Museums.
Amenemhat’s grand head probably doesn’t look as grand as it did when the body it crowned was comparably massive. The identity of the pharaoh whose statue is borrowed from Berlin might have been possible to know if the sculpture had not been recarved, some six centuries after it was made, with features of a New Kingdom ruler. By then the Middle Kingdom itself was long gone, materially scattered or buried and forgotten. It had met the fate it feared. Yet Osiris still does his work, because here it is at the Met, in pieces but resurrected.
“Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom” opens Monday and continues through Jan. 24 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; 212-535-7710; metmuseum.org.