Art

Stunning creations from ancient Egypt

An exhibition gathers together, for the first time, the 4,500-year-old masterpieces of that country’s Old Kingdom

Brian Bethune February 14 2000
Art

Stunning creations from ancient Egypt

An exhibition gathers together, for the first time, the 4,500-year-old masterpieces of that country’s Old Kingdom

Brian Bethune February 14 2000

Stunning creations from ancient Egypt

Art

An exhibition gathers together, for the first time, the 4,500-year-old masterpieces of that country’s Old Kingdom

Ancient Egypt has fascinated outsiders ever since Herodotus, the fifth-century-BC Greek historian, visited a civilization already thousands of years old. And the artistic splendours that captivated him—the Great Pyramids, Sphinx and statues of the Old Kingdom (2650 to 2150 BC)—still define Egyptian civilization in the Western mind. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the portable masterpieces of the era have never before been organized into a single exhibition. Not, that is, before Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, on view at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum from Feb. 13 to May 22. A joint project of the Louvre museum in Paris, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the ROM, the stunning exhibition drew almost 800,000 visitors in France and the United States last year. Now, the 200 treasures from 30 museums are about to be unveiled at the ROM, their third and last stop. The show reunites sculptures, relief carvings and everyday artifacts scattered by 150 years of archeological digs—with results that challenge long-held assumptions.

Krzysztof Grzymski, the ROM’s se-

nior Egyptian curator and one of the exhibition’s organizers, has been waiting a long time for this exhibition, which he calls his “personal millennium project.” The 49-year-old Polish-born archeologist, who came to Canada in 1977 to study at the University of Calgary, has been immersed in Egyptology since his teenage years, when the giant Aswan dam project in southern Egypt put the country’s cultural treasures back in the media spotlight. Now he is overjoyed:

“I can’t believe that these objects—which I knew from books, from visiting sites— are physically here in Toronto. Here. In Toronto. It’s the most tremendous feeling.”

The jewel in the show’s crown is the 4,500-year-old statue of Pharaoh Menkaure and his queen. Discovered in 1910 by a Harvard University expedition and known as the “Mona Lisa of Egypt” for its beauty and the pharaoh’s faint smile, the 1.3-m tall work has never before left the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It depicts the king who built the third pyramid at Giza in the standard male pose, striding forward with his left leg advanced, while his wife—portrayed as an equal partner— gently embraces him. The unknown artist, delicately carving in slate, expressed psychological and emotional nuances in his subjects by capturing tiny physical details—the queen’s natural hairline peeping out from under her wig, Menkaure’s round nose and smile. For Grzymski, the sculpture is simply one of “the greatest art objects ever created.”

By grouping so many monumental sculptures together, the exhibition shatters a common stereotype of ancient Egyptian art, that it was unnaturalistic and unvarying in style. That belief is rooted in the odd perspectives of two-dimensional relief carving— what Grzymski calls “the whole walk-

like-an-Egyptian thing.” But with sculpture, the strictures that artists worked under—left foot always forward, for example, or children inevitably posed with an enigmatic finger to the lower lip— still allowed ample room for a flowing naturalism and numerous individual touches. And it is those details, which humanize the people immortalized in stone four millennia ago, that give Old Kingdom art an intimate domesticity to match its exotic element. The husband and wife sculptures, the frequent representations of children, the highly unusual alabaster carving showing Pharaoh Pepi II, who had come to the throne very young, seated full-grown on his mother’s lap—all resonate with modern sensibilities.

So do the many everyday objects recovered from the tombs, all placed with their late owners to serve them in life after death. That new existence was expected to bear a remarkable resemblance to earthly life, as shown by an extraordinary dress in beaded netting taken from the grave of a female contemporary of Pharaoh Khuiu, builder of the Great Pyramid. Made of 7,000 faience beads in contrasting shades of blue, it would have left its wearer stylishly attired for her new life.

Meanwhile, the relief carvings, impressive even as isolated slabs, are far more powerful and distinctive when restored to their original contexts. One wall of the exhibition is devoted to five superb limestone slabs from the tomb of the nobleman Metjetji, reunited for the first time since grave robbers sold them individually some time in the 19th century. The fragments are now owned by the ROM, the

Met and museums in Berlin and Kansas City, Mo. “It’s wonderful to get into bed with the Louvre and the Met,” notes Grzymski, “but it’s also great to put our own pieces in perspective.”

One section of Metjetji’s tomb depicts

on a smaller scale his son, Ihy, hugging his father’s leg and the inscription, “this is his son whom he loves.” That sense of family values suffuses ancient Egyptian art and forms a good part of its appeal, Grzymski believes. “This mysterious culture from far away and long ago is made familiar through its art. People find they were just like us.” But there is another factor involved in Egypt’s continuing pull, the curator thinks, another way the ancient civilization resembles the present. “The Egyptians themselves were obsessed with time and survival, with preserving their bodies, names and images forever. And,” adds the smiling curator, “they largely succeeded.”

Brian Bethune