Corrections or additions?
This review by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
December 15, 1999. All rights reserved.
Treasures from the Pyra
When it comes to enjoyably awesome history, the
pyramids of ancient Egypt are perhaps second only to the oversize
dinosaur in popularity. Americans of all ages — and school
in particular — are susceptible to the mysterious doings of the
ancient Egyptians, and the magnificent scale on which they did them.
New York City is a world center for Egyptian art. The combined
of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, begun
in 1874, and the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art are
There are even New York City kids who rattle off the names of Egypt’s
pantheon of gods, goddesses, and pharaohs as readily as others recite
their Pokemon characters.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art this holiday season, a landmark
show puts the art of Egypt’s lesser-known Old Kingdom (from about
2650 to 2150 B.C.) at center stage. "Egyptian Art in the Age of
the Pyramids," is an international collaboration featuring some
250 works of sculptural and decorative art created for use in the
temples and tombs surround the ancient pyramids.
On view through January 9, "Egyptian Art in the Age of the
is an international collaboration rarely matched in scale and scope
in the field of ancient Egyptian art, featuring works from 30 museums
in 10 countries. In addition to the plethora of sculptures, scale
model temple reconstructions, tools used in the construction of the
pyramids, and actual facing stone from the Great Pyramid at Giza are
also part of this extraordinary enterprise. This is the only U.S.
stop for the show that opened last summer in Paris and will conclude
at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto next year.
The exhibition opens dramatically with a photograph of the Pyramid
of Menkaure at Giza and the pyramid temple that serves to mark the
border between temporal remains of the Old Kingdom and the eternal
world that existed in the minds of its rulers. Within the hush of
the exhibition, with gallery walls painted from dark, brooding gray
to sandy beige, and ancient sentient figures standing everywhere,
the visitor who travels through this massive, meandering show can
share some of the sense of mystery and discovery that we associate
with the exploration of the pyramids.
For 4,000 years, Egypt’s pyramids dominated their
imposing their presence on the imagination of all who came after.
Yet in marked contrast with the strict geometric exteriors of the
pyramids, the buildings surrounding them were furnished with
sculptural art of astonishing realism.
The essence of Old Kingdom art is joy in life, say the curators.
of men and women are rendered as young, vigorous, and beautiful. And
there is a deep respect — even awe — for the diversity of
life. Sculptures and paintings depict all forms of life, from animals,
birds, and plants to the river Nile itself from which came the flood
to water the fertile land. The Egyptian artists sought to duplicate
this sense of joy in a world of stone that would last forever.
As museum director Philippe de Montebello, who unveiled the exhibit
last fall with the Egyptian ambassador at his side, explained,
examples of Old Kingdom art can be found in museums worldwide, but
to view them all would entail months of travel through Egypt, Europe,
and North America.
"By bringing together many of the finest works of this period
— and even reuniting some for the first time since their
— this exhibition is a rare event, and the effect of seeing these
objects in one place cannot be overstated," he continued.
the canonical works of Old Kingdom art, which are familiar to every
student of art history, will seem new within the context of so many
other prime examples of the art of the period."
For 3,000 years before the modern era, civilization flourished along
the Nile River. The Egyptians created written records, the practice
of providing the dead with all the accouterments of the living, and
a climate that preserved it all intact.
From the days of King Tut mania to the current bevy of Egypt
shows, the West’s ongoing love affair with Ancient Egypt is at least
200 years old. And one author has put forth an intriguing reason why
this is so: because there are no strings attached.
"In contrast to how we view the ancient Hebrews, from whom our
religions are descended, or the ancient Greeks and Romans, who left
an intimidating cultural legacy, we feel we owe the Egyptians nothing
— a much better basis for wholehearted love," declares Polly
Shulman of Science Magazine in an essay published in the New York
Times last September. Of all ancient cultures, she observes, Egypt
is the one that most rewards ignorance.
And although we would not wish it that way, ignorance — in essence
— still throws a long shadow on the study of Ancient Egypt. There
is so much that is unknown. Yet this is a double-sided coin, because
the numerous historical lacunas offer tempting rewards for those who
want to undertake the study of Egyptian archaeology. The show includes
two scale models including the pyramid complex of King Sahure, and
one of the great sun temples of the period, reconstructed with the
aid of state-of-the-art computer imaging.
In another example of the every-changing landscape of Egypt studies,
in November this year, a few scant weeks after the Met’s "Age
of the Pyramids" show opened, the historical record on the origins
of alphabetic writing were being drastically revised. The discovery
and dating of limestone inscriptions — in a Semitic script in
the desert west of the Nile — suddenly placed the origin of the
alphabet two or three centuries earlier than previously recognized.
The earliest examples of the use of an alphabet now appears to be
the work of Semitic people living deep in Egypt, not in their
homelands as had been thought.
The Old Kingdom, an historical period that lasted 500 years (from
about 2650 to 2150 B.C.), was a formative time for ancient Egyptian
culture. During this period of great cultural efflorescence, artists
working in all media created images that were to define Egyptian art
for centuries to come. The pharaohs were regarded as semi-divine
who communicated with the gods. King Khufu, builder of the Great
at Giza, presided over the initial phase of the first peak period
of Old Kingdom art.
The divine nature of the omnipotent Old Kingdom pharaoh gave high
social status to those who served him, from royal hairdressers to
wardrobe masters. Among the remarkable naturalistic images and
on view are those of farm laborers, craftsmen, cooks, and bird
Anatomical detail is rendered with care and precision.
It was one of the ancient Egyptian’s most fervent wishes, expressed
in texts on coffins, not to be separated in the afterlife from wife
or husband and children. Husband and wife standing affectionately
side by side, and family groups are surely among the most touching
images in this show, reaching as they do across 4,000 years of human
history. Among all the classical portrait studies and group
in this show, no two are in fact alike, but represent variations on
a common theme.
For those motivated to further exploration, "The Art of Ancient
Egypt: A Web Resource" is available on the museum’s website
This thematic chronicle of ancient Egyptian art features 40 major
works from the permanent collection, plus archival photography and
film of excavation sites, extensive commentary, and a comprehensive
— Nicole Plett
Museum of Art , Fifth Avenue at 82 Street, New York, 212-535-7710.
Open every day except Monday. Hours are Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday,
and Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday to 9 p.m.
Suggested admission $10 adults; $5 students. Show continues through
Sunday, January 9.
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