Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Middle Kingdom exalted

Yesterday I took in the wonderful exhibition Ancient Egypt Transformed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Aimed mainly at true connoisseurs, the show is unlikely to rank as a blockbuster event, though one never knows.

The exhibition has two major strengths. The first consists of small, delicate panels and figurines with their modest accounts of daily life in the period.

Soaring over all, however, are the extraordinary portraits of the pharaohs of the twelfth and thirteenth dynasties. While the Middle Kingdom liked to regard itself as simply a restoration of the glories of the Old Kingdom - a typical neoclassical posture - it achieved a decisive advance in these portraits.

While Old Kingdom portraits show some individuality, their idealist treatment precluded full embrace of the inherent, and sometimes tragic potential of portraiture as we have come to know it. The faces of the Middle Kingdom works are simply amazing, recasting the human visage as it were as the record of one's lifelong battle for integrity and wholeness - a battle that inevitably none of us can really win. As such they are existentialist portrayals. Not until the time of Rembrandt was this model recaptured and surpassed, if then.

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