Giving Up the Ghost

Pyramid scheme: Kai Seated, from "Egyptian Art" at the Met.Photo: courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Many people find Egyptian art forbidding – formulaic, austere, pedantic, monumental, death-haunted. Many even prefer it that way. They will be taken aback by the large exhibition of Old Kingdom art (ca. 2650-2150 B.C.) that opened last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Despite its size, Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids is a fresh, intimate, often cheerful show that seems to celebrate the here-and-now rather than the hereafter. The curators have figuratively thrown open the doors to the tomb, let in the light, and shaken out clouds of ancient dust. “The essence of Old Kingdom art,” writes the curator Dorothea Arnold, with a directness rarely found in her field, “is joy in life.”

Organized by the Metropolitan, the Réunion des Musées Nationaux in Paris, and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the show includes about 250 works of sculpture and decorative art that were excavated, for the most part, in the neighborhood of the pyramids. Many of the finest pieces from the Old Kingdom are on display, among them powerful statues, delicate relief carvings, and lovely pots. Titillation is in short supply. There are no bedraggled mummies to excite school groups, nor much gold to cluck over: The splendor of Tutankhamen comes later in Egyptian history. During the Old Kingdom – a formative period in Egyptian culture that established traditions that would endure for 3,000 years – Egyptian art is still finding its way. While subject to many rules, it has not hardened, and has a kind of simple, rough-hewn vitality. The embalmers are not yet expert at their trade. Luxury for luxury’s sake is not the standard.

It was during the Old Kingdom that the Egyptians constructed the first great pyramids, which were surrounded by temples and other buildings. Far from being dim shadows of life, these cities of the dead celebrated earthly existence, for their primary function was, in Arnold’s view, to “replicate and eternalize life, in a sense to build a duplicate world of stone that was able to last forever.” She describes Old Kingdom art this way:

Men and women are predominantly rendered as young, vigorous and beautiful… . Animals and elements of the inundated land fully share in human existence, which is, above all, productive and pleasurable. People of all stations perform their tasks with confidence in their own abilities and in the ultimate value of their achievements. The deserts teem with wildlife, fish abound in the canals and the river, migratory birds visit the marshlands in great numbers, and the annual Nile flood comes, on the whole, with dependable regularity to water the fertile earth. No wonder that the pharaoh is depicted striding forward hand in hand with a deity!

During the Old Kingdom, Egyptian pleasure in the world took the form of an often remarkable realism. That realism, however, was never absolute when royalty was the subject. Too much individuality would have diminished the formal dignity of a semi-divine pharaoh; the spirit could never be locked into the particularities of the flesh. Even so, in the austere statue grouping King Menkaure and a Queen, both the pharaoh and the queen appear as palpable individuals. The king has prominent cheekbones and a protruding lower lip; the queen has a chubby face and a pursed mouth. (She seems a woman of decided opinions.) Arnold speculates that this may be the first time in history that “real flesh-and-blood human beings were captured inside the formality of royal imagery.” To modern eyes, however, the most astonishing piece of realism in the exhibition is certainly Hemiunu Seated, which portrays the figure who probably oversaw the building of one of the great pyramids. Hemiunu is a corpulent, flabby-breasted man of middle age. And yet he has extraordinary personal focus – he is a man of will – and a kind of swelling physical presence. A massive man for a massive project.

Many of the couples in the show – even the royal couples – have an air of mutual affection. The woman’s arm is often around the man’s back; they lean into each other in a quietly married way. In their original state, many statues appeared even more lifelike, for the Egyptians were skilled at crafting inlaid eyes from crystal, metal, and paint; they would sometimes position pupils and irises slightly off-center to create the flickering illusion of movement in a person’s expression. Perhaps because the Egyptians understood absolute power so well, they could also convey vulnerability with great force, especially when freed from the rules about how to present royalty. Few works of art better suggest the sensation of naked exposure than the depiction of a man about to cut the throat of a calf or the portrayal of a kneeling captive with his arms bound behind his back.

In their relief carvings, the Egyptians typically present animals according to stylized conventions. But here, too, the animals often appear freshly observed rather than simply abstract. The Stela of Wep-em-nefret, whose color remains remarkably vivid, contains a brilliant assortment of animals. (A frog, looking up to meet the viewer’s eye, is especially fine.) The relief Fishermen and Herdsmen With Their Animals shows a man coaxing cattle across a stream by carrying a calf into the water, thereby prompting the mother cow to follow; she strains to reach her calf with her tongue as the calf squirms back toward her. The two animal tongues meet as delicately as two fingers – creating a slender line to pull the weighty herd across the divide. Even the materials the Egyptians used often come to life. Their alabaster, a sort of waxy yellow color, seems to harbor an inner light.

As in the Met’s newly installed galleries of Greek art, the design of this show emphasizes the aesthetic beauty of the objects. Each work is granted plenty of space. Spotlights isolate and heighten appearances. The close and rather murky air of history, anthropology, and the classroom – typically found in galleries of ancient art – is not permitted to dominate the eye. Presenting ancient objects in this modern manner makes them seem still more contemporary, bringing them even closer by enhancing their immediacy. The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom were already interested in giving life to the dead, in making the past present and the distant intimate. For contemporary viewers seeing this show, the sensation of time collapsing will be startling. These objects were made more than 4,000 years ago – before the Old Testament was written – but have aged less than most art made last year.

Giving Up the Ghost