Beyond the Pharaohs: Met exhibition and catalogue explores the surprising origins of Ancient Egyptian art

The groundbreaking exhibition The Dawn of Egyptian Art opened at The Metropolitan Museum of Art this week. The show explores the origins of Egyptian art and includes rare and ancient images of people, animals and landscapes. As we discover, whilst some of these stunning objects anticipated the Pharaonic Egyptian art we know today, others remain utterly unique, frozen in time.

When we think of Egyptian art, which images spring to mind? It will most likely be the iconic ancient art from the Pharaonic era, characterised by colossal sphinxes, elaborately decorated coffins, arcane hieroglyphs and beautifully modeled reliefs.

Less well-known, but equally impressive, are the rare and ancient images of people, animals and landscapes from the pre-Pharaonic era, the period that preceded and directly influenced these iconic forms of artistic expression.

On Tuesday this week The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York) launched its fascinating new exhibition, The Dawn of Egyptian Art. The show features around 180 examples of the earliest works of Egyptian art, created in the Predynastic and Early Dynastic periods (around 4400 B.C.–2649 B.C.). These outstanding works, gathered from the collections of the Metropolitan and 11 other museums in the US and Europe, are both beautiful and surprising.

“Visitors who are familiar with the appearance of hieroglyphs and other later Egyptian artistic expressions will be surprised by these early works, which are very different in scale, style, and subject matter,” says Diana Craig Patch, the exhibition organiser and author of the accompanying catalogue.

“Yet, if we look closely at this early art, we can already detect the origins of certain signs in later hieroglyphic writing and of some symbols and concepts associated with ancient Egyptian rulers and the gods. The Predynastic and Early Dynastic period was a time of great creativity, before the ‘typically Egyptian’ forms became codified. Yet, because of the rarity of these objects and lack of inscriptions, we cannot always explain what they meant to the early Egyptians.”

The exhibition includes depictions of landscapes painted on vessels, objects in the form of different animals—grouped by habitat (river, air, or desert)—and humans. Certain groupings will also reflect the important themes of fertility and renewal, and chaos versus order.

Depictions of humans are of two types: realistic figurines in bone or ivory that depict the entire human body; and abstracted forms in clay, mud, ivory or stone in which the figures often lack arms, have missing or poorly formed legs, or have beak-like faces that emphasize the nose. All figurines have attributes that identify their gender clearly. Evidence indicates that some figurines were made to represent a specific activity and that their position in tombs was not arbitrary.

Animals also occur frequently in early Egyptian art, and the exhibition is particularly rich in images of hippos, crocodiles, turtles, fish, antelopes, elephants, baboons, lions, dogs, ostriches, ducks, falcons, scorpions and snakes. Probably because of certain attributions or characteristics, some animals grew in importance during this period, and they carried forward as symbols in later Egyptian culture, while others disappeared.

Dawn of Egyptian Art (page spreads)

Animals: Pages from the ‘Dawn of Egyptian Art’ exhibition catalogue

Dawn of Egyptian Art

‘Dawn of Egyptian Art’ exhibition catalogue

The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalogue by the exhibition’s curator Diana Craig Patch, with essays by Renée Friedman, Ann Macy Roth, Marianne Eaton-Krauss, and David P. Silverman.

With beautiful illustrations of these fascinating objects, the catalogue presents the origins of these art forms and iconography that remained in use for centuries. It is perfect for those not able to make the exhibition, or for those that want to take a more detailed look at some of these magnificent objects. Comprehensive texts explore the origins and early development of the culture of ancient Egypt while discussing the representation of the self and the universe, the relationship between image and writing, and the early Egyptians’ evolving view of how the world worked.

Looking through the book, what’s amazing about these ancient objects is how simple yet evocative they are, almost anticipating forms of modern minimalist expression. The depictions of birds and horned creatures (above) employ a beautiful economy in their construction. There is a softer, gentler aesthetic displayed here, in contrast to the sharper depictions of creatures in Pharaonic Egyptian art.

The exhibition, and its accompanying catalogue, offer a wonderful glimpse of a somewhat forgotten ancient art, but one that deserves to be recognised and appreciated for what it is: a beautiful form of human expression, with echoes that resonate today.

The Dawn of Egyptian Art runs from 10 April – 5 August 2012

The exhibition catalogue Dawn of Egyptian Art is available now from Yale University Press.

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