"Long before Tutankhamun, centuries before Cleopatra and Julius Caesar," writes author Bennett Schiff, "in the age when the Great Pyramid of Giza was built and the Sphinx took shape above the sands, roughly 4,600 years ago, the pattern was already set for all that came in Egyptian art for millennia afterward." The period of the Old Kingdom, covering some 500 years from about 2650 b.c. to roughly 2150 B.C. was one of the worlds most creative. In addition to the rise of the Pyramids and the birth of the Sphinx, these years witnessed the creation of statuary unsurpassed to this day for its massive simplicity, grace and elegance and of wall reliefs notable for their sculptural mastery and accurate depiction of nature.
Most important, the basic framework of Egyptian art was set during this time a canon that would provide ensuing artists for thousands of years with a specific way of depicting the human figure. "The artistic conventions set the way to show people," says Dorothea Arnold, head curator of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "It was almost like a language. Yet it was elastic.... It showed how creative the artist could be within the canon."
The most comprehensive exhibition ever mounted of the art of the Old Kingdom will be on display at the Metropolitan from September 16 through January 9. Titled "Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids," the show opened at the Grand Palais in Paris. From New York, it will continue on to Toronto, where it can be seen at the Royal Ontario Museum from February 13 through May 22. Some 30 museums and collections in ten countries have contributed more than 230 masterpieces never before seen together. "It was about time," says Arnold. "It will be a period seen in a new light."