Perhaps one of the best recent shows of historical Egyptian art in the world - the latest unveiling of these specimen Egyptian treasures can now be seen on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. - Ecomanta.
Ancient Egypt is box office gold: Do a show, and people will come. Why? Mummies, Hollywood and Queen Nefertiti certainly contribute to its allure. Also, we tend to identify with Egyptians of thousands of years ago. In art, they look exotic, but not out of reach. They drank beer, collected cats, and wore flip-flops. They yearned to stay young and to live forever, with loved ones nearby and snack food piled high. Who can’t relate to that?
At the same time, they were foreign in ways we can barely imagine, ruled by kings they referred to as “junior gods,” and by gods who had power over all, but had to be flattered, pampered and fed. As for art, they had no word for it. What to us is gorgeous, to them was useful, a ticket to the other side, the life beyond.
Few institutions have done a better job at illuminating that art than the Metropolitan Museum. And it returns to the subject in “Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom,” an exhibition notably low on King Tut bling and high on complex beauty. Opening on Monday, it’s a classic Met product. It assembles some 230 top-shelf objects from more than 30 international collections, with about a third from the Met itself, to tackle an impossibly broad and complicated piece of history.
Oddly, given its central place in Egypt’s past, the Middle Kingdom (circa 2030 to 1650 B.C.) has never had a comprehensive museum showcase till now. Maybe “middle” sounds unsexy, implies incomplete, in progress, unformed. But that wasn’t the case. The Middle Kingdom was a time of specific change and accomplishment. And in a sense what’s most distinctive about its art is precisely its in-between-ness, its demonstration, within a culture that wanted to believe otherwise, that all is flux; nothing is stable; the only reality is change.
A big change came to Egypt with the sputtering close of the previous period, the Old Kingdom, the so-called age of the great pyramids, with its capital at Memphis in the north. Then, for nearly a century, there was anarchic confusion as provincial leaders battled for dominance. Out of the fray, a southern ruler named Mentuhotep II, pharaoh of the 11th dynasty, emerged to take the reins. Then, under Amenemhat I, founder of the 12th dynasty, northern and southern Egypt were reunited.
A sandstone statue of Mentuhotep II, who ruled from around 2051 to 2000 B.C., opens the show. It’s carved in a calculatedly archaic style: stolid, columnar, arms stiffly crossed, knees like knobs, face locked in a noncommittal smile. Old Kingdom and proud, it seems to say, though it was, of course, Middle Kingdom, and innovations in art were underway. The body of a similar figure made later under his direct successor is all sensuous swells and curves. And in a relief depicting an encounter between a pharaoh and a goddess, the fineness of the incised detail — eyebrows, hair, fabric textures — is astonishing. We see power being visually packaged in new ways.
Such shifts in vision, reflecting political and social change, are evident in the show’s second gallery, which has been set up as a kind of royal portrait hall. In the sculpted head of the second pharaoh of the 12th dynasty, Senwosret I, we see Old Kingdom confidence: a youthful, plump-cheeked leader with a broad, no-worries smile. Some 50 years later his successor, Senwosret III, projects an entirely different mood: His face is aged, gaunt, grim. And then comes a famously haunting image of one of the dynasty’s last rulers, Amenemhat III, as a stricken, sleep-deprived child-king who has seen too much.
Wildness, implying unpredictability and loss of control, was seldom expressed in Egyptian culture, which patrolled borders and monitored hierarchies. But it’s there, a bit, in Middle Kingdom art, in a tiny pottery figurine of a distraught mourner, in a fragment of battle-scene relief in which human limbs rain from the sky. - Holland Cotter