The words ancient Egyptian art evoke similar images in the minds of children and archaeologists alike: towering pyramids, painted mummies and hybrid deities with mixed anthropo- and zoomorphic traits. These artistic traditions did not develop overnight with the formation of the Old Kingdom. A new exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art highlights the grace and diversity of Egyptian art from the Predynastic and Early Dynastic Periods that set the tone for Egypt’s artistic program for millennia to come.
The late fifth to early third millennium B.C.E. art featured in “The Dawn of Egyptian Art” (on display until August 5) includes pieces from the Met’s collection in addition to loans from near and far. A striking lapus lazuli figurine from Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and the limestone “Lady of Brussels” are some highlights of the international loan, and complement the local collection well. The simple and elegant clay figurine known as the “Bird Woman” (on loan from the Brooklyn Museum) is a remarkably early display of motion in the human form. The expressiveness of her upraised arms could indicate dance, lamentation or celebration; no matter which interpretation is chosen, they all reach a height of passion rarely attained in early/mid fourth millennium art. The simplicity of the clay figurine stands in stark contrast to the detailed complexity of the late fourth-millennium bas-relief palettes steeped in the adrenaline of the hunting scenes they portray.
The exhibit’s roughly 190 pieces subtly highlight how diverse animal, human and landscape forms from the Naqada and other Predynastic cultures preview the well-known styles seen in the later Pharaonic era. Museum visitors are encouraged to visit this small but exciting collection at the start of a visit to the Met before exploring the extensive and permanent Egyptian galleries.