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Egyptian Art


by N.F. Karlins
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“The Dawn of Egyptian Art” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Apr. 10-Aug. 5, 2012, explores Egyptian civilization before the pharaohs and the codification of hieroglyphics, when this developing culture was experimenting with ways of governing, rituals and iconography.

This stunning show whips up a sense of the mysterious in presenting objects -- figurines, pottery, ivory and stone carvings -- that only hint, albeit tantalizingly, at what religious ceremonies might have been like from about 4000 to 2650 BC, the end of Dynasty 2. Seeing only the elegant and perplexing “Bird Woman,” borrowed from the Brooklyn Museum, would make a visit worthwhile by itself. More on her in a minute.

The exhibition also presents some of the most charming and endearing animal representations in the history of art. Who could not be amused by a stone eyeliner palette in the form of a pair of turtles? This is definitely a show that the kids and the kid-in-you will enjoy.

At the end of the exhibition, a small selection of later Egyptian art, including the Met’s trademark faience hippo, aka “William,” illustrates themes already seen in the pieces from the Predynastic and Early Dynasties, suggesting the continuity of certain forms and images over thousands of years.

One of the most beautiful and most famous abstract Predynastic objects is the “Bird Woman,” a painted clay figurine from around 3650 BC. It is also one of the most enigmatic. Met Egyptian art curator Diana Craig Patch, who organized the show and helmed the excellent catalogue, says she thinks this figure “reflects not dancing, but a motion of greeting or praise.” This type of figure, found in a small number of female tombs, might equally depict women celebrants, possibly priestesses, welcoming a god into their own bodies, gradually becoming the gods themselves.

“Bird Woman” has curved, uplifted arms that form a graceful line that runs down her body to the abbreviated feet. Since most statuettes are nude during this period, “Bird Woman” and the few others like her are distinctive in their white, long skirts. Similar figures are found in rock art and on pottery from Egypt around this time. A pottery bowl, one of several with what appear to be ritual scenes, has such a figure, set on a boat with a smaller, seemingly less important male figure. Is their journey part of some rite? And if so, of what kind?

Many scholars think that the head does not really represent a bird, but a woman’s face with a pronounced nose, underscoring the connection between breath and life. But the figure could also be transforming into the falcon god, connected with the sun. Early art is filled with depictions of shamans with uplifted arms, yet what this statuette means remains anybody’s guess, at least for now.

Abstracted male and female images were made in a variety of materials, such as the ivory stick figurine of a female. Found in a tomb, she seems to have a bowl on her head, possibly to provide the dead with sustenance in the afterlife. She looks very different from the “Bird Woman,” perhaps because she fulfilled a very different role.

At the same time, the Egyptians were producing realistic figures, too. A nude female in lapis lazuli, which probably came from Afghanistan in trade, has some Egyptian traits, yet others that seem to have come from elsewhere. Is she an import? Or just an odd, local product? For the present, she remains another lovely mystery.

Animals abound in this exhibition, especially hippopotami and crocodiles. Because hippos and crocodiles could kill, they represented chaos. And one of the ways to demonstrate power over their environment to the ancient Egyptians was to exert control over chaos. Consequently, representations of hippos and crocodiles often show them being confined or controlled in some way. A White Cross-lined Ware bowl shows a trio of hippos confined by zigzags, meaning water. They look remarkably placid in their captivity.

Another bowl depicts a hippo hunt, probably ritually conducted as in later Pharaonic times, with wavy lines from hunter to hippo that suggest harpoon cords. The male hunter wears a penis sheath, usual for the time, and a tail, indicating kingly or at least elite status. This might be a realistic hunting scene, a symbolic representation of a mythic encounter, or both.

One of the largest animal sculptures in the show is modeled after a kind of baboon that lived in desert cliffs during this period. Representing some deity or royal ancestor, the impressive idol has carved into its base the name of the last Predynastic ruler, King Narmer, making him a very special offering to a temple from about 3100 BC. Equally interesting is one of the smallest animals, an ivory amulet in the shape of an elephant’s head with piercing blue frit eyes.

A hard, dark sandstone known as greywacke was typically used for small, flat eye-liner palettes, by both men and women, but “The Dawn of Egyptian Art” begins with a more three-dimensional striding or running jackal shaped from this material. With its immense physical presence, this tomb offering appears as a supremely capable guardian figure.

Larger ceremonial palettes, perhaps for lining the eyes of figures of deities in shrines where they were usually found, were also made of this stone. Carved on both sides, the Battlefield Palette fragment on display shows a lion devouring a captive while birds pick at his dead comrades. The lion was symbolic of the king, and this grisly depiction of animals and men from about 3300-3100 BC illustrates the king’s might as Egypt coalesced into one state under one ruler.

“The Dawn of Egyptian Art,” Apr. 10-Aug. 5, 2012, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.

N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.