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Click Here to Create a Custom Cartouche of Your Name or Phrase with the Fun and Popular Hieroglyph Translator
The New York Times -- September 17, 1999


Egyptian Art: The Mysterious Lure of an Old Friend


NEW YORK -- A FEW years ago there was a traveling exhibition, "Egyptomania," which showed how Greeks and Romans, then Italians, French, Russians and Americans borrowed, copied and stole from ancient Egypt, or what they believed was ancient Egypt because after a while the copies and adaptations got mixed up with originals and became part of the evolving culture.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Hemiunu, the prince in charge of building the Great Pyramid.

Obelisks, pyramids and all the other Egyptian-derived forms, which for centuries, even before the great excavations of the 19th century, permeated Western art and architecture (the Egyptian Hall in London, the original Tombs in lower Manhattan, the old suspension bridge over the Neva in St. Petersburg, the Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris and on and on) proved that the Egyptians succeeded, to a degree probably even they didn't anticipate, in leaving a legacy to outlast themselves.

A major show of Old Kingdom art, now at the Metropolitan, easily gets the early vote for blockbuster of the fall season. Organized at the museum by Dorothea Arnold and handsomely installed, it's one of those spectacles, like the Byzantine, Chinese and Mexican surveys that the Met has done in recent years, that is not just about art but about a whole civilization. It examines the first great epoch in Egypt, the 500 years from 2650 to 2150 B.C., which is really the high point of all ancient Egyptian culture, when the pyramids were built and the canon of Egyptian art was established. As well as any show, it demonstrates why Egyptian art still holds an incredible fascination in the West.

Considering the number and popularity of exhibitions about New Kingdom pharaohs like Tutankhamen and Amenhotep III, it's a little surprising that this is actually the first big survey devoted to Old Kingdom art, but evidently there hasn't been an excuse to do a show until lately, and museums generally need some excuse for moving around some of the oldest sculptures in history. The excuse here is that experts, who for a long time didn't pay much attention to the Old Kingdom because it seemed like a settled subject, have been fiddling with the chronology of some of the objects on view. Those of us who aren't Egyptologists will simply be grateful for the chance to peruse work that, aside from being astonishingly beautiful, has continued to seem over thousands of years mysteriously impenetrable and familiar at the same time.

No doubt this is a reason for Egypt's fascination: its paradoxical status in our imagination. We think of Egypt as both complex (hieroglyphs, religion) and, in a formal sense, rudimentary (the pyramids). Children, for instance, are always drawn, as if genetically programmed, to the Egyptian section of a museum because Egyptian art seems immediately understandable to them. To a child learning to read, hieroglyphs are colorful, eye-catching pictures, unlike letters of the alphabet, and Egyptian statues, with their predictable, straightforward attitude toward the viewer, look like people pared down to basic forms, which is how a child is inclined to draw.

Adults admire the same art for opposite reasons: it seems abstract and sophisticated in the sense that we know it depends on a remote philosophy of nature, religion, authority, class, beauty and death. Adults always say how Egyptian art looks modern, by which we really mean that modern art has evolved complicated forms of abstraction, symbolism and linear representation, many of which ultimately descend from the Egyptians.

The art is abstract and illusionistic simultaneously. A landmark of the Old Kingdom from the Fourth Dynasty (2575-2465 B.C.) is the famous seated statue of Hemiunu, the prince and vizier in charge of building the Great Pyramid. It's one of the first things that occupies your attention in the show. Hemiunu is kind of a pyramid himself, a triangular mass of limestone, life size, straight-backed, feet firmly planted side by side, hands resting on his lap, one palm down, the other closed, with a look on his face of divine indifference.

And he's fat -- his large breasts two grapefruits, his huge arms slack over a frame that, to judge by his head, seems barely sufficient for his size, his undulating belly sagging under the weight of his flesh. (You see this best straight on.) A different portrait of him, a small profile in relief, also in the show, makes him look more youthful, less forbidding but still fine-featured and strong-jawed, so that between the two versions we feel we have some idea of what he actually may have looked like.

This was the essence of Egyptian portraiture: to find a way, within strict parameters, to convey particularity -- to combine, in a sense, what one knows with what one sees. Accurate observation was necessary to fulfill the immortalizing function of Egyptian art -- to be a true embodiment of the person in stone through eternity -- but observation always had to be modified by convention.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Intimate detail: The back of a sculpture of Iai-ib and Khuaut, husband and wife.

You could say that this remark applies to all art, which it does, but with Egyptian art the limits of convention were unusually specific. The standard Egyptian relief portrait, as it came to be established during the Old Kingdom, required each part of the body to be presented in strict proportion, with its essential aspect to the viewer (shoulders forward, head turned, legs sideways and striding). An icon of Egyptian art, anatomically impossible, it's also a strangely lifelike arrangement.

The artist who carved the relief of Hesi-re, the Third Dynasty (2649-2575 B.C.) scribe, found a way to obey this formula without being formulaic and to make us see someone in particular: a tall, slender young man, serious, with alert eyes, high cheekbones, hooked nose, narrow mouth, faint mustache and sinewy arms.

We have no idea who the artist was, but while artists didn't carve their own names into these sculptures, we can tell the good workshops from the less good ones: the workshop, say, that sculptured the triad of the Fourth Dynasty king, Menkaure with two goddesses, as opposed to the one that made the little statues of Inti-Shedu, an artisan -- although they both convey a humane understanding. Some of the most memorable works aren't the biggest or the fanciest, in fact; they're sculptures like the one of Iai-ib and Khuaut, husband and wife, side by side.

She is a little behind him, shorter and standing so close to him that her right breast presses against his arm. You can make out her body beneath her sheath dress -- the belly, thighs, hip bones and back. It's the back that makes the sculpture special: her arm reaches around him, her hand on his shoulder, an intimate detail that comes as a particular surprise because it's invisible from the front. We err to think of Egyptian art as monotonous, even monotonous in a stately, incantatory way (a common remark). More accurate is to say that it's an art of subtle variation, especially impressive for operating within such a strict code.

The Old Kingdom peaked artistically during the Fourth and Fifth Dynasties (together 2575-2323 B.C.). From the Sixth Dynasty are the famous statue of Queen Ankh-nes-meryre II with her son, Pepi II, fully grown in miniature form, sitting on her lap (every mother's dream), and various standing wood figures of seal bearers, slim, muscular, vacant-faced, a little toylike but elegant in silhouette. Still, the essential forms of Egyptian art were in place earlier, when they more clearly expressed the central Egyptian paradigms of permanence and immobility.

Egyptian art, after all, was ultimately about death, or more to the point, it was about eternal life after death, about achieving a suspended state of grace (another source of Egypt's eternal fascination for us). What remains of Old Kingdom Egypt are tombs, or objects from tombs, which represented and recreated the lives of the people buried. As the textbooks always remind us, Egyptians made stone sculptures not for the sake of art as we think of it today but as a duplicate of the living world to be occupied by the dead, or to be precise about it, by their ka, the life force. Sculptures of the pharaohs were permanent bodies made of stone to replace the flesh ones they left behind.

"The Egyptians say that their houses are only temporary lodgings and their graves are their real houses," is how Diodorus Siculus, the ancient Greek historian, famously put it (although he might have added that this sufficed nicely for kings, queens and high officials with big graves, while for the masses of Egyptians, home for eternity was a shallow pit).

It's a final, intriguing paradox that an art about death should teem with so much life. As Ms. Arnold, the curator, writes, "The essence of Old Kingdom art is joy in life," which is exactly right. The show is full of paintings, relief scenes and small sculptures of contented laborers, fishermen, musicians and cooks. Men and women are always made to look beautiful, even when they're fat or old or dwarfs; Egyptians depicted everyone with a respect for the diversity of humanity.

They embraced the ordinary in the afterlife, something that separates their view of life from our notions of death, which are fixated on heaven, hell and oblivion. Time after time in the exhibition, in the way that one experiences small epiphanies by being alert to what happens all the time on the street, our attention is drawn to little details from the everyday world: the sexy torso of Lady Hetep-heres, a statue from the Fourth Dynasty; two orioles fighting, from a Fifth Dynasty limestone panel; sailors on a ship, from a relief of the late Fourth Dynasty or early Fifth Dynasty. The artist who carved that scene demonstrates the Egyptians' mastery of abstract line drawing, the image being a complicated crisscross of ropes, oars, legs and masts; even the water under the boat is made into a kind of braid, jewel-like.

And this is what the best Old Kingdom art is about: conveying the basic elegance and pleasure of everyday forms in a form that is, itself, elegant. One relief in the show has a herd of cattle crossing a canal. The herd is lined up in a strict row except for a cow in front whose head rears to lick her calf riding on the back of a herdsman. It's a herdsman's trick for coaxing cows through water: the mother will follow the calf and the herd will follow her.

The calf here turns around and touches its tongue to its mother's tongue. An ordinary image becomes something else. The panel was carved for the tomb of a high Sixth Dynasty official named Ni-ankh-nesut and is a funerary monument to sweet life.

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