Sunday, January 10, 2016

Our Treasures Abroad, New York: Met Exhibit Shatters 19th-Century Myths about Ancient Egypt

The reunification of ancient Egypt achieved by Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II—the first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom—was followed by a great cultural flowering that lasted nearly four hundred years. During the Middle Kingdom (mid-Dynasty 11–Dynasty 13, around 2030–1650 B.C.), artistic, cultural, religious, and political traditions first conceived and instituted during the Old Kingdom were revived and reimagined.

This transformational era is represented through 230 objects and groups in this major international exhibition. Fashioned with great subtlety and sensitivity, and ranging in size from monumental stone sculptures to delicate examples of jewelry, the works of art are drawn from the preeminent collection of the Metropolitan—which is particularly rich in Middle Kingdom material—and thirty-seven lenders in North America and Europe. This is the first comprehensive presentation of Middle Kingdom art and culture, featuring many objects that have never before been shown in the United States.

For centuries, ancient Egypt seemed a marvel of unchanging continuity to professional and amateur scholars alike, a society defined by tradition and cultural stasis. As late as 1975, an architecture critic wrote of its tombs and temples what was generally believed of the culture as a whole: “In the architecture of the Nile, although the hand never fails, the stimulus of intellectual curiosity, the tension that springs from avid enquiry, is often absent.”

A luxuriously large exhibition devoted to the Middle Kingdom period of Egyptian civilization, on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, dismantles that prejudice thoroughly. “Ancient Egypt Transformed” looks at one of the least-appreciated periods of the 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history. 

Lintel of Senwosret I Running Toward the God Min (detail). Limestone.
Twelfth Dynasty, reign of Senwosret I (ca. 1961–1917 B.C.).
(Anna-Marie Kellen/The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology,
University College London)
The Middle Kingdom lasted not quite four centuries, from about 2030 to 1650 B.C., and much of its architecture is lost. But it was also a period of significant cultural change, in ideas about kingship and religion, social status and class, and in the means and details of artistic expression. Drawing on the collections of 37 museums in the United States and abroad, it features 230 objects, many of them exquisite, some of them colossal and all of them revelatory.

The exhibition opens with a statue, more than eight feet tall, of Mentuhotep II, an 11th-dynasty king who reigned for more than half a century and is considered the founder of the Middle Kingdom. The statue is smooth, imposing and opaque, with crudely rendered feet and arms and knees barely protruding through a veil of impassive stone. It is a deliberately archaic form, referring to styles that were perhaps 600 to more than 1,000 years old at the time of its carving.

Metropolitan Museum curator of Egyptian Art Adela Oppenheim argues that it’s important to distinguish the archaizing tendency of Egyptian culture from the real or apparent continuity of Egyptian civilization. Which is to say, the statue of Mentuhotep II doesn’t look old by Egyptian standards because no new ideas had intervened between the 3rd and the 11th dynasties, but because it was deliberately created to look old, a bit of propaganda meant to establish legitimacy and connection to the Old Kingdom.

The exhibition nevertheless provides a rich sense of quotidian life, within and beyond the inner circle of the king. It includes musical instruments and games, models of boats and houses, and military ration tokens, presumably shown by a soldier to gain his allotment of bread. It also includes tools, a hand-held chisel and wooden mallet of the sort that would have been used to carve the finished pieces seen in the exhibition. Among the most striking works on view is an unfinished statuette, with the tracing line of a standing, crowned figure still clearly visible on the small limestone block.

Ancient Egypt Transformed On view through Jan. 24 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York . For more information, visit metmuseum.org .

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