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

enormous

pyramids of ancient Egypt are perhaps second only to the oversize

dinosaur in popularity. Americans of all ages — and school

children

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

holdings

of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, begun

in 1874, and the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art are

unsurpassed.

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

Pyramids"

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

landscape,

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

naturalistic

sculptural art of astonishing realism.

The essence of Old Kingdom art is joy in life, say the curators.

Figures

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,

"Splendid

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

excavation

— this exhibition is a rare event, and the effect of seeing these

objects in one place cannot be overstated," he continued.

"Even

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

blockbuster

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

Syria-Palestine

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

beings

who communicated with the gods. King Khufu, builder of the Great

Pyramid

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

sculptures

on view are those of farm laborers, craftsmen, cooks, and bird

catchers.

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

compositions

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

(www.metmuseum.org).

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

timeline.

— Nicole Plett

Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, the

Metropolitan

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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