The magic of pre-pharaonic Egyptian art

A new exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is a thunderstorm of a show that takes us back to the beginning of some of the earliest works of art in Egypt.
The Met has assembled a captivating collection of 180 works that were produced in the predynastic and early dynastic periods of the country’s history (4400 BC – 2649 BC), emblematic of the mood of artistic endeavours before pharaonic authoritarianism dictated the social and visual direction for a very long time indeed.
Suitably entitled The Dawn of Egyptian Art, the exhibition offers a dramatic departure from the contemporary image of the country’s past, dominated as it is by the Pharaohs’ magnificent tenure.
“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,” said Diana Craig Patch, organiser of the exhibition.
“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.”
Ms Patch describes this period as one of great creativity, a time before rules so to speak, where art wasn’t “codified” into the visual narrative that is known today. More powerfully, due to the absence of objects from this epoch – and therefore an absence of inscriptions, decipherable, which leads to understanding – some of the intent behind the art can never be fully known.
With the sculptures, which have been carefully handled by art handlers in New York, a theme emerges, one of man’s inextricable link with nature, especially that of the animal kingdom. We are all, the silent pieces whisper, of the same world, bound by nature, tied in the mystery of the universe.
“Animals occur frequently in early Egyptian art, and the exhibition is particularly rich in images of hippos and crocodiles, turtles and fish, antelopes, cattle, elephants, baboons, lions and canids (jackals and dogs), ostriches, ducks, falcons, scorpions and snakes,” the Met has observed.
“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.”
Some of the standout pieces include the poetic Bird Woman (3650), a delicately poised sculpture; a charming cerulean hippo that appears to have been marked with patterns; and a jackal made from stone, whose modest angular contours suggest that sharp forms are waiting to burst out.
Throughout the exhibition, there are hints of the world to come, the unspoken coalescence of a uniform identity that was important to the world the Pharaohs wanted to create.
“The repetition undoubtedly replicates reality to some degree – flocks of flamingos, standing in water, often line up in surprisingly regular ways – but it also manifests a desire for order and control over nature,” observed the New York Times’ Roberta Smith.
“And these schematic birds, which are divided neatly into three elements indicating leg, body and neck-head, also reflect the closeness in the Egyptian mind of image making to writing that would eventually result in hieroglyphics.”