December 18, 2009

At the Met: Ancient Egypt, and Iran

Ointment jars and pots for makeup, 1800-1500 BC

Stone Vessels, Early Dynastic, 3100-2650 BC

Since I was a child ogling mummies at the Brooklyn Museum (which has a fantastic Egyptian collection), I've been fascinated by the artifacts of ancient Egypt. It was a material culture that surrounded itself with beautiful objects, often meant just for the powerful and important in their afterlife. It's remarkable to see the stunning pots pictured above, and realize that they were made thousands of years ago, as though they are templates for classic pottery to follow centuries later. The shapes have the same exquisite perfection found in the Chinese porcelain. The fact that they're made of stone makes their achievement more impressive.

Offerings, Dynasty II, 2010-2000 BC

Stela of Mentuwoser (detail), 1955 BC

Egyptian reliefs of painted limestone that decorated tomb and temple walls are the works that I think of when I say "I love Egyptian art". With a minimum of carving in low relief, the artists were able to create a subtle rendering of life, to carry into the afterlife. Each human, each animal, plant or object was rendered in a sinuous, delicate line, which enhanced the simple sense of form. The emphasis on line ties Egyptian sculpture to some painting called "primitive", which I discussed a bit in the post "Two Paintings". I have a deep sympathy for this type of art. Egyptian artists were especially compelling when they pictured the natural world; their images of animals, here seen dead as offerings, were very sensitive and attentive. There are images of fishing along the Nile, or of farming, that offer a vivid narrative of daily life.

Fragment from statue of King Senwosret III, 1878-1840 BC

I photographed this fragment of a portrait because it has so much life in it. It's hard to believe that it is made of stone; you feel that the "flesh" would be tender if you pressed a finger on it. Looking at the slight crease around the mouth, the small swelling there, it's as though the King is about to speak to us.

from Southwestern Iran: Antelope Pendant, 3100-2900 BC

I included this lovely little object, which I discovered during my recent trip, in the Egyptian post because it's also very ancient. It has the same careful, loving depiction of an animal that we see in Egyptian sculpture. From the precisely sculpted flanks, to the sweet face, and up those fantastic antlers (and the erect little tail), here is an animal portrait that will stay in my memory.


  1. Lovely! Absolutely lovely! Currently in my hometown we have the King Tut exhibit at the local art museum. It should be here until (I believe) March of 2010. Since I'm a "Friend of the Museum," I can go anytime I want to see the exhibit free of charge. Sometimes I go down to the museum in the morning, and sit there all day and work. I don't know why, but I always get more work done--and quality work--when I sit amongst all these beautiful pieces of art.

    I love the fragment of King Senwosret's statue. You can even see the pores in his skin. What material is it made of? Is it clay mixed with sand?

    Did the exhibit at the Met have any woven materials? Our Egyptian exhibit here has an entire overdress woven of clay beads. It's absolutely fabulous!

  2. Aren't you lucky, J.R., to be able to hang out at the Tut show. The beauty, and the sense of art's eternal appeal, make Egyptian art such a marvel.

    The material of the King Senwosret portrait is quartzite. I was remiss in not posting materials. All the Egyptian sculpture is stone, except for those rare wooden figures that have survived.

    There are some woven textile fragments in the Met collection, but nothing like the overdress you describe.

  3. Thank you for the visit to the Met, a place I have never been. You are the best tour guide.

  4. your museum posts are wonderful serendipitous reminders ... historical bookmarkers .. I'm glad to be greeted by them when I come to your site. with the Chinese ceramics esp. I realized how a photo can enforce stillness, because of the controlled environment. these objects effortlessly take on a particular grand presence here that would require some effort to experience face to face.

  5. Thank you, Julia and rappel, for your comments.

    yes, there's something about isolating an object or a group that creates a zone of quiet separate from all the visual noise; it's wonderful noise, but at times overwhelming.