Where the monumental meets the minute

Egyptian Art in the Age of the pyramids - The Cairo Museum - Pharaohs of the Sun

August 11, 2000

The poet T. S. Eliot, though not primarily an art critic, wrote that he could not be comfortable with a civilisation that produced things that were only colossal, while at the same time he was not able to think much of a civilisation that produced things that were only minute. What the author of Prufrock and begetter of Cats thought about ancient Egypt is not known to me, but here are three lavish volumes - it is impossible to avoid the term sumptuous - that would have done a lot to make him come to terms with the place.

The Old Kingdom (c. 2600-2200 BC) was the age of the first and largest pyramids, and this it seems places Egypt squarely in Eliot's monumental but unsound category. It is the age of the first flowering of Egyptian visual art. Over the next 3,000 years, Egypt was to produce an artistic legacy rivalled in the ancient world only by that of Greece or China. The art of the Old Kingdom was confident, one might say brash, but it is characterised by versatility, simplicity of line, mastery of materials and a sensitive approach to the representation of personal features, especially the face. For some Egyptologists, the art of the Old Kingdom is the finest period of all, and the following two millennia of art represent variations on themes already perfected in the early age of the pyramids. For others, the spirit of the Old Kingdom is a little too in-your-face, and some prefer the more introverted and subtle art of the following Middle Kingdom.

As if with this in mind, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has produced Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids . In essence this is the catalogue of a travelling exhibition, but it also serves as an encyclopedia of early Egyptian art. It covers the familiar as well as the almost unknown, ranging from architecture to the most intricate details on jewellery. Jean-Philippe Lauer, the doyen of archaeologists in Egypt, contributes a chapter on the Step Pyramid, the first truly monumental stone structure in the Near East, and perhaps anywhere else (although this is a matter of definition). Previously, it was thought that only one likeness of Khufu, the king who built the Great Pyramid, had come down to us. This catalogue identifies two more: a colossal head and a smaller version. The old question of the so-called reserve heads is recalled once again. These are life-size disembodied stone or plaster heads, found in tombs of the period. Here the contributor reasserts his belief that they are simply sculptor's models, while at the same time emphasising how different they are from the products of conventional sculpture. This does not convince, although it is clear that in some cases the heads could be copied. But why put sculptor's mock-ups in tombs, when one could, and did, use the real thing?

The Egyptians and their pyramids were clearly at home with the monumental,but there is also a delightful series of items to show that they could handle the miniature. For example, alabaster vases, stylised monkeys holding their young to their bodies; inlaid butterflies of the silver bracelets of Hetepheres, mother of Khufu; the pert features of Princess Nefret-iabet ("Beautiful girl of the east") on her stela in the Louvre, and the almost Oriental treatment of the leaves of the wind-blown trees in the relief of the woodcutter. If this is really an Old Kingdom work and not a Late Period adaptation, it is a marvel.

Fast-forward 1,000 years to the New Kingdom. Akhenaten, the "heretic" pharaoh, is now world-famous, but it is worth recalling that before the late 19th century nobody knew anything about him. He had been wiped from the official record after his death, and Cleopatra had probably never heard of him, even though she was an intellectual who took the trouble to learn Egyptian. Akhenaten remained in obscurity until the lifetime of Freud. There is something quite 20th century about this pharaoh: an iconoclastic visionary with a genius that may have made him the first totalitarian ruler as well as the first monotheist.

Pharaohs of the Sun is yet another sumptuous volume, and it, too, is an exhibition catalogue, in this case one held in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to mark the millennium. Designed for a somewhat wider readership than the Pyramids volume, it contains a series of introductory essays exploring the world of the Amarna pharaohs, as they are known from the modern name given to Akhenaten's capital city. On one stela, now in the Louvre, Akhenaten is shown with Nefertiti, his principal wife, sitting on his lap. Family intimacy is a striking feature of the royal art of this reign, where the king's family is used in art to fill some of the gaps created by the abolition of traditional mythology. Small fragments of papyrus, recently identified in the British Museum, show soldiers in foreign armour, perhaps Asiatic or Mycenaean; this was a more cosmopolitan world than some have imagined. The historical essay at the beginning revives the odd notion that the mysterious figure known as Smenkhkare, normally taken to be a short-lived brother of Tutankhamun, was Nefertiti in some form of ideological drag. The catalogue entries that form the second part of the book demonstrate the fact that Egyptology has something for everyone. There are the portraits of the major players in the political life of the period, some well known, others still unidentified; paraphernalia from the houses of what was a living city: tongs and tweezers, scales, vessels of polychrome glass, a donkey's yoke, even a latrine seat. The religious figurines surviving from these houses show that traditional religion, especially the part of it that covered domestic concerns such as childbirth, was stronger than any edict from on high, and the volume raises the interesting idea that Akhenaten's religion was less monotheistic than has been thought, with religious persecution being directed primarily at the state god Amun rather than at the whole pantheon.This is a feast of a volume.

Over the past two centuries Egyptian art has been scattered all over the world, but the biggest single collection is in the Cairo Museum. Its collection is of such size and complexity that it would be beyond the resources of far richer countries than Egypt to preserve and display. Relatively little can be shown at any one time, and some of its pieces have never been properly photographed or published in an accessible format.Foreign organisations need to play their part, and it is arguable that possession of Egyptian art by foreign countries implies a moral obligation,not to repatriate it, but to cooperate with the nation from which this art originated to conserve and develop its own artistic heritage. The Cairo Museum is one of the treasure-houses of the world, as well as being the principal one of Egypt, and The Cairo Museum: Masterpieces of Egyptian Art provides proof of this claim. Many of the pieces illustrated here have been seen elsewhere, and the Cairo volume is perhaps the most glossy of the three books, but there are still many surprises. The model groups of wooden soldiers from the tomb of Prince Mesehti show the clear differences between the Egyptian spearmen, with their reddish-brown skin and their simple linen kilts, and the troop of Nubian archers with their black complexions and elaborate loincloths. There is the little-known statue group of Amenophis II with the cobra goddess Meretseger, "she who loves the silence".

The treasures from the royal tombs at Tanis, less studied in the English-speaking world than they ought to be, are given serious treatment in a chapter by Jean Yoyotte. After this, one can turn to the serenely classical sculpture from the tomb of Psammetichus at Saqqara, and there is also the exquisite relief from the tomb of Horhotep, probably dating to the generation before the arrival of Alexander the Great in Egypt.

Finally, there is an ornamental glass vase from Roman Egypt that deserves international prizes in the category of bad taste without any hint of self-doubt. World heritage can take many forms, it would seem, some of which can be charitably described as ripe for re-evaluation.

Taken together, these three volumes make it clear how impressive the Egyptian artistic legacy is. It achieves this with its combination of sophistication and simplicity, with its sense of balance and avoidance of the grotesque, and in the way that it masters the largest of scales without loss of humanity and the smallest of details without loss of control. The canonical rules and the conventions of decorum that govern it might be thought restrictive, but in reality they could free the ancient artists to produce almost constant variation. It is surprising how little Egyptian art repeats itself, despite the ritual uses to which much of it was dedicated. These volumes remind us that we are fortunate that so much of it still exists. They also remind us that we have a duty to publish what remains unknown, and to preserve what we have inherited.

John Ray is reader in Egyptology, University of Cambridge.

Egyptian Art in the Age of the pyramids

Author - D. Arnold, K. Grzymski, C. Ziegler et al
ISBN - 0 300 08595 8
Publisher - Metropolitan Museum of Art
Price - £50.00
Pages - 624

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