Seeking the Sources of Art in Ancient Egypt ; an Exhibition at the Met Presents Clues with Array of Early Masterpieces

Article excerpt

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 abstraction.

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 clues.

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 single object.

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 unforgettable.

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. …

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