The sleeper sensation of the summer is “Dawn of Egyptian Art,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is one of those museum shows—they come along every few years—that most of us go to with no particular expectations and leave convinced we have experienced something we’ve never experienced before. I left knowing I was breathing a purer kind of air. Certain animals, carved in stone, are among the most radically eloquent simplifications of living form ever shaped by human hands. And there is much more: pottery painted in a blunt, casually geometric style; small, intimate, enigmatically elongated ivory figures; allegorical narrative scenes depicting hunts and battles carved in bold, low relief to achieve a sleek, graphic power. Of course we arrive at this exhibition imagining we are already familiar with Egyptian art. After all, we’ve been looking at this stuff since we were kids. And our fixed expectations only underscore the wonderful shock of an art that confounds all expectations. What we know about, or at least think we know a bit about, is the art of the Pharaonic period, while this stirring exhibition takes us into much earlier times, roughly 4,000 to 3,000 BCE.
Are we wrong to regard the work in “Dawn of Egyptian Art” as extraordinarily elegant? Is elegant a word that can only be applied to a civilization’s most self-conscious artistic refinements? Some of the animal carvings in “Dawn of Egyptian Art” have left me thinking that the apprehension of elegance is one of humankind’s primal experiences, grounded in the most basic appreciation of the muscular poetry of the human body and the thrilling sight of animals in motion. Among the finest works here are thin sheets of stone, cut into eloquent silhouettes; known as palettes, the small, smooth surfaces, generally made of greywacke (a dark, matte, fine-grained stone) were used to grind minerals for facial decoration. The silhouetted shapes—of two turtles, a falcon, a lion, an elephant, two antelope, and what is perhaps a guinea fowl—have a blunt yet seamless poetry that Brancusi, Arp, and Calder may rival many thousands of years later but that I am not sure any artist has ever actually surpassed. What Clive Bell dubbed “significant form” (in 1914 or thereabouts) has never been more significant than in these iconographic silhouettes carved some six thousand years earlier.
Diana Craig Patch, who organized the show and wrote much of the catalogue, emphasizes the early Egyptians’ intimate responses to the North African river, sky, and desert—and to the creatures that inhabited these interdependent realms. Of the hippopotamus, an animal common in early Egyptian art, she comments that its strength and ferocity posed great challenges for hunters, and that representation might have functioned as a form of magical control. As for the Egyptians’ interest in the copulation of turtles or birds, thought to be the subject of a number of works where animal forms are doubled, the curious configurations may have been regarded as emblems of fertility and regeneration. Whatever the artists had in mind—and we will never know for sure—the stripped-down forms in these very often small sculptures certainly subsume a mass of complexities. Raw experience and magical and religious experience have been crystallized—intensified. The singularity of the form—with all the beguilements of a nursery-room naiveté—encompasses a multitude of adult experiences. This uneasy rapprochement between simplicity and multiplicity is what gives the animal carvings their uncanny, disquieting force.
With “The Dawn of Egyptian Art,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art is doing what it has for a generation done better than just about any other museum in the world. The curators at the Metropolitan are masters when it comes to embracing the most sober and searching scholarship and then marshalling that knowledge to produce transcendent museumgoing experiences. When I revisited “The Dawn of Egyptian Art” on a weekday morning not too long ago, the museum was just beginning to fill with summer tourists, and the magic of the Egyptian show was part of some more general wonderment that I encountered everywhere I turned. From the Egyptian exhibition I went to look at the show of Ellsworth Kelly’s plant drawings, and the move from 3500 BCE to works mostly produced in the second half of the twentieth century was no problem at all. The finest of Kelly’s studies of plants and flowers, with solitary black lines making their way across expanses of white paper, achieve a summary power that echoes the silhouettes of those Ancient Egyptian palettes. This desire to essentialize nature is very old and very new. Elsewhere in the museum, a small show dedicated to North Italian paintings from the Accademia Carrara in Bergamo is a modest but stirring delight. My attention was held there especially by a small landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice, a tempestuous Giorgionesque pastoral that may or may not be by Titian, and Lorenzo Lotto’s Stoning of Saint Stephen, where the awful violence of the narrative is strangely and movingly united with the serpentine elegance of half-a-dozen male figures. This Lotto is a most unusual painting, with horror and beauty locked in a slow-motion dance. And there was still more to see at the Metropolitan, beginning with but not limited to “Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition,” with its sensational textiles and ivories, and “Dürer and Beyond,” a gathering of Central European Renaissance drawings from the museum’s own collection. I had arrived at the museum with a limited amount of time, meaning to see one or two things and staying to see two or three more, and I only left when other obligations could no longer be avoided. On such a morning, who can doubt that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the greatest show on earth?
Jed Perl is the art critic for The New Republic.