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Book Review: Dawn of Egyptian Art

Dawn of Egyptian Art

Diana Craig Patch, editor

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012

The common conception of ancient Egyptian art is that it’s very old and almost comically static in style. We associate the antiquity with the famous boy-pharaoh Tutankhamun, or else with the great pyramids of Giza looming outside Cairo in their sunlit glory. And we typify the static style in the stiff positions of the men, women, and gods found in the various wall-paintings and carvings of those and similar locations. The gestures and postures in those paintings have been abstracted almost to semaphore by hundreds of generations of artistic tradition, to the point where it sometimes requires the eye of a specialist to distinguish artwork from the Old Kingdom around 2600 BC and the New Kingdom which flourished a full thousand years later. More than any other civilization in the history of the world, the Egyptians seem to deal in vast stretches of centuries the way other nations deal with mere decades (this is certainly true for ancient Egypt, although anybody who’s ever waited for a plumber in modern-day Cairo will be certain it still applies).

It’s this very antiquity – the fact that the famous Tutankhamun was on his throne in 1340 BC, 3300 years ago, or that the Great Pyramids of Giza are so much older than that, dating from around 2560 BC – that lends the remnants of ancient Egypt their singular power. It’s haunting to an almost paralyzing degree to think that this civilization, so weird yet so instantly human, was in the refinement of its greatness – sophisticated, artistic, already old – nearly two thousand years before Homer, whole yawning millennia before Socrates and Pericles. We look at their paintings and sculptures – boys chasing birds, clerks hunched over records, husbands and wives matter-of-factly embracing each other – and we feel we know these people; in ways almost too complicated to unravel, they seem more akin to our own daily lives than the ancient Greeks or even the ancient Romans – and yet the Egyptians are almost unimaginably more remote in time than either.

How deliciously shocking, then, this new exhibit running all summer at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and how endlessly fascinating is the pretty companion catalogue, created by the Museum and distributed by Yale University Press – because these are all artworks and artefacts that make the Giza pyramids seem recent.

A dozen museums contributed items to this paradigm-shifting display, and the catalogue, edited by Diana Craig Patch (Associate Curator in the Department of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan museum and author of the three best essays in the book), sets them in context and clear lighting for years long after the exhibit itself has given way to other things. These pages contain not only images of dozens and dozens of objects from the Predynastic era of Egyptian history (extending to a mind-staggering 4400 BC) but also photos and diagrams from ongoing archeological digs in and around Hierakonpolis and other sites (there’s a photo of a worker carefully brushing the skeleton of a baboon ritually buried some 5650 years ago; the juxtaposition is positively jolting, whether you’re partial to baboons or not).

Here are the daily-life things of these people who were not yet the ancient Egyptians: their jars, their bowls, their gaming tables and pieces (some in the shape of dogs, five millennia before “Monopoly”), their amulets, linens, hair combs, jewellery boxes, model boats, statuettes, carved door sockets, and especially palettes, exquisitely carved palettes of almost infinite variation, from workaday items that might very well have been used for the traditional pestling of makeups to the ornate versions that were almost certainly intended for display alone. These palettes are in truth mirrors: all the moods and priorities of their times are captured in their exquisite carvings, from simple lions and the bizarre double-turtle found on the catalogue’s cover to the stand-out masterpiece of this exhibit, the “Battlefield Palette” dating from roughly 3500 BC, showing a gory aftermath:

The obverse of the Battlefield Palettte depicts the end of a conflict, with the losers splayed across the field of combat. The lion, as the central and dominant element, symbolizes the king, who has defeated Egypt’s enemies, a people at this time generally believed to have lived in a marshy area, probably in some part of the Delta not under the sphere of a slowly coalescing Egyptian state. As the lion eats the entrails of the enemy leader, vultures and crows pluck out the eyes of the other slain men.

It isn’t just the details that arrest the viewing here (although those details are pitiless, from the blandly bewildered faces of the freshly slain to the oft-reported death-erections of the victims), it’s their sinuosity: we’ve grown accustomed to the stilted angularity of much later Egyptian art, but on this and many other palettes, figures writhe across the surface like worms. Sacerdotal and guild-hall standarizations haven’t yet taken root; the artists’ imaginations twist and twine all around the limits of function. And when shapes are angular, they’re often as not starkly inhuman, caricature preceding depiction like some ritual re-enactment of childhood doodles. On page after page of this beautiful book, a procession of strange shapes – unnameable, largely unfathomable – parades before the reader (and the visitor, at the Museum), cloaked in a confidence to which all keys and codes have been lost. Once, these things were looked at, laughed over, perhaps lusted after – they had stories, provenances, proud creators, pleased recipients, and then they slept in baking sands and buried tombs for the entire life of civilization, through wars and empires and epochs that are themselves ancient. Now we clean them, catalogue them, and stand them upright in glass cases so we can beguile our imaginations by looking at them.

But you can’t escape the creeping suspicion: they’re looking at us too.