An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York casts
new light on the birth of art in human society, with a variety of
works that reflect sublime observation and early examples of
How art begins is one of mankind's greatest enigmas to which an
answer has yet to be found.
If there is any hope of discovering the process out of which it
emerges, ancient Egypt might be the place that will yield some
The admirable show, "Dawn of Egyptian Art," put together at the
Metropolitan Museum of Art by Diana Craig Patch, reveals a world of
seething artistic creation headed in multiple directions. Much of it
bears no recognizable connection to the statuary and objects from
Egypt under its historic dynasties.
The most startling revelation is the simultaneous existence by
the end of the fourth millennium B.C. of pure abstraction, highly
stylized figuration and representational art close to nature.
All three trends are occasionally observed side by side on a
A large earthenware vessel from Naqada, a site north of Luxor in
Upper Egypt, is thus painted with some abstract motifs above a group
of simplified human figures. Around and below them, desert goats are
accurately rendered with their characteristic twisted horns. The
vessel was created around 3300-3200 B.C.
During the centuries that preceded it, Egyptian artists had been
exploring radically different avenues.
A stone jar carved between 3650 and 3300 B.C. displays a stunning
aptitude at reducing animal form to near abstraction, with a surreal
twist that anticipates 20th-century avant-garde art. With its round
eyes and curving tusks, it conjures the image of an elephant. The
image conveys a distinct sense of hilarity. This comes out even more
definitely in a gray stone palette shaped as an animal. To Ms.
Patch, this is a lion. Others might be tempted to see it as a
hippopotamus with its massive back and enormous head.
There was no limit to the ancient Egyptian love of drollery in
animal form. A small squat jar designed like a turtle looking up
with its round eyes beats Walt Disney cartoons by a long chalk.
By contrast, the monumental statue of a bird about 201/2 inches,
or 50 centimeters, high carved out of limestone projects a brutal
force that is almost overwhelming. Excavated at Coptos in the Naqada
area, it dates from the last three centuries or so of the fourth
millennium B.C. Whether it is more or less contemporary with the
amusing turtle is uncertain -- early excavation reports do not
always come up with a high degree of precision.
Similar uncertainty surrounds the stunning human figures, large
and small, said to have been excavated between 3300 and 2900 B.C.,
shortly before the first dynasty of ancient Egypt, if not even
during its early stages.
An ivory statuette of a standing man with a mirthless expression
on loan from the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford in
England and a wooden head from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that
once formed part of a life-size statue reveal an attention to human
feelings that one rarely associates with ancient Egypt. The mood of
distressed resignation that emanates from the wooden mask is
Early sculptors were capable of catching the most subtle
psychological nuances. A limestone statue of a woman from the Musees
Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire in Brussels stands with her left arm
pressed across the chest in a gesture that conveys respectful salute
to this day throughout the Middle East. She looks ahead with staring
eyes wide open and one eyebrow raised ever so slightly, as if
stunned in awe. Executed some time in the 27th century B.C., the
sculpture ranks among the earliest masterpieces of psychological
portraiture in the world.
The biggest surprise is the discovery of a three-dimensional
portrait with highly individualized features. The man's head is
carved with such careful observation and such sensitivity in the
observation of the subject's mood that it might almost pass for a
Western sculpture of the 19th century. …