The style of ancient Egyptian art is transcendently clear, something eight-year-olds can recognize in an instant. Its consistency and codification is one of the most epic visual journeys in all art, one that lasts 30 dynasties spread over 3,000 years. That’s the era -- as long as six Roman empires, or a dozen American ones -- we all know for its pharaohs and pyramids and sphinxes, Tutankhamen and Rameses, and that brief instant in the Eighteenth Dynasty when art comes within a hair’s breadth of a lyrical naturalism we associate with Ingres.
At the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s breathtaking exhibition, “The Dawn of Egyptian Art,” you won’t see any of that. This show covers the years between about 3900 B.C. and 2649 B.C., the period before Egypt became Egypt, and opens a mystical window on how the forms, ideas and images of Egyptian art came into being. And although I relish the dynastic art -- especially the breathtaking, magnificent Eighteenth -- the predynastic period is my favorite. It’s looser, more unfinished, open, raw, not as codified as what followed. In this show, you’ll see nothing less than the completion of the long metamorphosis from the Neolithic to the modern mind, of one kind of human becoming another, seeing and interacting with the world in new ways. It is also incredibly old: more ancient to Julius Caesar than Caesar is to us.
To grasp how this art came to be, understand that nature and topography are everything in Egypt. The livable part of the country is the several-miles-wide, 600-mile-long Nile Valley, a densely populated strip bounded by pure desert and thus impervious to invasion. It has two big problems: first, it never rains. Second, the river floods every summer (or did, till 20th-century dams were built). The land demanded strict confederation and administration to use the rich silt brought into the valley by the floods, and it took the form, starting around 4400 B.C., of “hydraulic despotism” -- total control by the pharaohs, managed by highly structured bureaucracies. The pharaohs came to be seen as gods on Earth, controlling the water, allowing farming and animal husbandry. Civilization simmered, bringing wealth and art.
The show is made up of about 180 objects, 80 from the Met’s permanent collection, most of them about the size of a lunch box. There are vessels, makeup palettes (that great eyeliner had to be ground and mixed somewhere), game boards, boats, a marvelously whimsical bowl with little feet that is actually a hieroglyph meaning “pure,” and numerous highly observed images of flowers, palm fronds, water, hills, antelopes, elephants, fish (one puffing out its young from its mouth), steers, deer and dozens of other animals. Many theorists insist that art wasn’t invented until the 18th century, that everything before that is either archaeological, anthropological, ceremonial or utilitarian. Nonsense. What you’re seeing, in addition to being all those things, is art. Great art made both to be used and to give visual, aural, tactile and psychic pleasure. Art that leaves us helpless.
There are a few large-scale statues, including one that sets the stage for almost all walking figures to come. But any number of objects display advanced ideas of space, abstraction, figuration, stylization, wit, narrative, touch and composition. On the inside of a small bowl, crocodiles bask on the banks of a river. Different plants are rendered from different angles. The crocodiles are sprawled in every direction, because that’s what crocodiles do. Squiggly lines on the rim, where real water would go, represent the shore. Meanwhile, the outside of the bowl displays animals that would be seen on the banks of the Nile, in an amphibious worldview that’s as naturalistic as anything by Constable. Elsewhere in the show, a deep bowl shows more crocodiles basking among delicately rendered weeds and reeds. Nearby are four hippos; one may be pregnant; a baby hippo trails behind. Relative scale, girth and positioning are in perfect perspectival accord. Have hippos ever been rendered better?
When I looked at the jackal statue ambling forward on bent tiptoe, tail full, ears alert, in mid-stride, all I could think was, Best. Jackal. Ever. A large palette gives us an elaborate lion hunt with numerous bowmen shooting arrows, antelopes running and being lassoed, an alarmed ostrich, a hunting dog or coyote clawing at a deer’s haunches. Another palette depicts carrion birds feasting on figures mauled by a nearby lion. In these two scenes, you see the start of the bas-relief carving and stylization that will soon become that clarion style we all know. “The Dawn of Egyptian Art” lets us see people living in a world of their own making, and observing, harmonizing and taming this world; people alive with ideas of their own, desires and an unexplained need to render it all as sensuously, seriously, wonderfully and as often as possible.
“The Dawn of Egyptian Art,” Apr. 10-Aug. 5, 2012, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.