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Press release


September 16, 1999 - January 9, 2000

"Egyptians were probably the first to be aware of the nobility inherent in the human form and to express it in art." — Heinrich Schafer, Principles of Egyptian Art (1919)

This press kit for Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids includes a general release about the exhibition, immediately following, as well as these three releases, to which you can link directly by clicking on their titles:



DOROTHEA ARNOLD, Lila Acheson Wallace Curator in Charge, Department of Egyptian Art

For 4,000 years, Egypt's pyramids have captured the human imagination. In contrast with the purely geometric exteriors of these monuments, the buildings surrounding them were furnished with sculptural art of unprecedented — and, for a long time, unmatched — realism. This fall, some 250 important works of sculptural and decorative art created for use in the temples and tombs surrounding the pyramids will travel to New York in a landmark exhibition, Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids. The result of an international collaboration rarely matched in scale and scope in the field of ancient Egyptian art, the exhibition will open at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 16, 1999.

The first major museum presentation of art from Egypt's Old Kingdom (ca. 2650-2150 B.C.E.) — and a compilation of recent scholarship — the exhibition features masterpieces from 30 museums in 10 countries. Tools used in the construction of the pyramids and an actual facing stone from the Great Pyramid at Giza will also be shown. One of only three venues for this exhibition, the Metropolitan Museum will provide the sole opportunity to view Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids in the United States.

The exhibition is made possible by Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman.

Additional support has been provided by The Starr Foundation.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, and the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.

An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Philippe de Montebello, Director of the Metropolitan Museum, commented: "Splendid examples of Old Kingdom art can be found in museums worldwide, but to view them all would entail months of travel through Egypt, Europe, and North America. By bringing together many of the finest works of this period — and even reuniting some for the first time since their excavation — this exhibition is a rare event, and the effect of seeing these objects in one place cannot be overstated. Even the canonical works of Old Kingdom art, which are familiar to every student of art history, will seem new within the context of so many other prime examples of the art of the period. The feeling of being introduced to this culture anew will be heightened through the inclusion of magnificent works that are seldom seen by the public."

More about the Old Kingdom
The Old Kingdom, an historical period that lasted 500 years, was a formative moment of ancient Egyptian culture. The pharaohs were regarded as semi-divine beings who communicated with the gods, and their confidence was translated into artistic works that evoke a sense of power and grandeur. During this time — the period of great cultural efflorescence — artists working in all media created images that were to define Egyptian art for centuries to come. Among the artistic achievements that characterize Egypt's Old Kingdom are magnificent objects of stone, wood, and precious metals; paintings, reliefs, and monumental statuary intended for use in temples and tombs; and imposing stone edifices. The earliest pyramidal monument, the Step Pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, as well as the first true pyramids, among them, the Great Pyramid at Giza, were all built during this seminal period, which is justly often called "the Age of the Pyramids."

From the beginning of the 20th century to the 1940s, extensive excavations took place in he ancient Egyptian sites at Giza, Saqqara, Dahshur, and Abusir, and scholars devoted their lives to studying the objects found there. A History of Egyptian Sculpture and Painting in the Old Kingdom, published by the noted American Egyptologist William Stevenson Smith in 1946, consolidated this research and was long regarded the definitive work on the subject. Subsequent generations of scholars based their own research on these important early findings, but some basic premises — specifically, the dating of key Old Kingdom works — have come under reconsideration in the past two decades.

This new research has been incorporated into — and has even shaped — the presentation of Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids. Because the primary arrangement of the exhibition is chronological, redated Old Kingdom works will be presented in thought-provoking juxtapositions that the public has never before seen.

Exhibition to Include Reconstructions, Temple Blocks
To enhance the public's understanding of Egyptian architecture of the period, the exhibition will include several scale models. One, depicting the pyramid complex of King Sahure (ca. 2458-2446 B.C.E.), was created nearly 90 years ago — soon after the excavation of the site — and has recently been restored. State-of-the art computer technology has also been used to recreate one of the great sun temples of the period. Reliefs that once decorated each of these building sites will be displayed nearby, providing the visitor with a sense of the magnificent complexes as they originally existed and of the placement of the decoration within them.

The delicate art of Old Kingdom relief carving, including ritual scenes as well as depictions of the natural world, will be represented by blocks from Fifth Dynasty temples that were part of pyramid complexes. One such work is a relief block from the pyramid temple of Sahure in Abusir (now in the collection of the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, Berlin), which depicts a procession of deities and fertility figures entering the temple and carrying scepters and ankh (life) signs. Hieroglyphs proclaim the words the deities speak to the king, promising him life, health, stability, and dominion.

In comparison, blocks from tomb chapels of Fifth and Sixth Dynasty officials show the earliest known depictions of daily life. The painted limestone relief from the tomb of Ni-ankh-nesut (The Detroit Institute of Arts) illustrates a typical river scene, in which fishermen prepare to haul in their net and herdsmen lead their cattle across the river. One man, carrying a calf on his shoulders, wades into the water. The mother is drawn toward her calf, and the two, in turn, are followed into the river by the rest of the herd.

Old Kingdom representations of the human body — although conceived according to a general formal canon — are based on detailed observations of musculature and body movement. The exhibition will demonstrate this characteristic of Old Kingdom art through carefully chosen examples of single figures and group statues from Dynasties Three to Six, including two famous works, both representing King Menkaure.

The splendid triad of King Menkaure with the goddess Hathor and a nome (district) goddess (Egyptian Museum, Cairo) shows the king striding forward, with his left leg advanced and his arms at his sides, in the canonical stance of a male figure that endures in Egyptian art for more than 2500 years.

In a second statue depicting King Menkaure and a queen (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), the king appears once again in the canonical pose, while the queen embraces him with a typical gesture of a wife or a mother.

Despite the many similarities shared by Old Kingdom sculptures, no two works are identical in all their aspects. The painted limestone statue of Iai-ib and Khuaut (Ägyptisches Museum, Leipzig), for instance, closely parallels that of the king and queen of the Boston dyad, but the woman presses closer to her husband's side and she rests her right arm on his shoulder in a more casual, intimate, and ultimately, human manner.

"Reserve Heads," Monumental Sculpture on View
The installation at the Metropolitan Museum also will include a representative group of the enigmatic sculptures known as "reserve heads." Excavated in the tombs of high officials of the Fourth Dynasty, these heads depict the physical characteristics of their subjects in a combination of abstraction and naturalism that is typical of Egyptian art. The individuality of the faces seems to indicate that they are actually idealized portraits of the owners, and the differences among them suggest the diversity of the Egyptian population. Because the original context for the heads was destroyed by ancient plunderers, their exact meaning and intended function remains a mystery. Only 31 whole or fragmentary examples of "reserve heads" are known to exist, and four of the most beautiful will be on view here.

Particularly important among the other sculptural works in the exhibition is the monumental seated statue (Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany) representing Hemiunu, a relation of King Khufu (called Cheops by the ancient Greeks) and the probable architect of the Great Pyramid at Giza. The depiction of Hemiunu is a realistic portrayal of a portly man in his later years, with heavy-lidded eyes and fleshy features suggestive of a long life.

The rarely displayed stela of Wep-em-nefret (Phoebe Hearst Museum, University of California at Berkeley), with its beautifully preserved painted relief decoration, was excavated by the noted Egyptologist George Reisner in the first decade of this century. One of only 14 slab stelae to have been found, this is the most perfectly preserved. Probably a gift of Khufu, the stela was the only decoration in Wep-em-nefret's tomb chapel.

A unique statuette of semi-translucent Egyptian alabaster depicts the Sixth Dynasty queen Ankh-nes-meryre, holding on her lap her son, Pepi II, who became king as a young child (Brooklyn Museum of Art). Although significantly smaller in size than his mother — as is appropriate, given his youth — Pepi is shown as a miniature adult, in full pharaonic regalia.

Some works, such as four statues of the official Nikare and a set of five relief sculptures that are usually dispersed among a number of museums worldwide, will be reunited for the first time since their excavation and displayed together for this rare viewing. Also featured will be several exciting finds made recently by Egyptian excavators working in the area of the cemetery and the workmen's community near the pyramids at Giza. Among these are the seated statue of the dwarf Per-ni-ankhu carved from basalt and the four limestone statuettes of the "overseer of the boat of the goddess Neith, the king's acquaintance, Inty-shedu," shown at different stages of his life. The exhibition will also include a section showing the methods and tools used to construct the pyramids, which will be complemented by the display of an actual building stone from the Great Pyramid at Giza.

A number of important decorative objects will also be on view. The collection of the Metropolitan Museum will be represented by a Third Dynasty wall decoration from the funerary apartments of King Djoser at Saqqara. Made of small molded plaques of blue-green faience — the color signifying regeneration — this assemblage was intended to suggest a woven reed mat. Also from the Metropolitan will be an elegant Egyptian alabaster jar, which demonstrates the stone carver's mastery of his material and of his craft. The elegant contours of this stunning vessel are enhanced by the interplay of translucent and opaque white sections, streaked with veins of orange and brown.

Although they were frequently depicted in Old Kingdom tomb scenes, actual wooden chests, boxes, and caskets are rarely found. On view in the exhibition will be a splendid Fifth Dynasty box (Museo della Antichità Egizie, Turin), its cover and sides decorated with an intricate inlay of blue and black faience alternating with yellow-white ivory.

Lenders to the exhibition include the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; European collections in Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, Hildesheim, Leiden, Leipzig, London, Munich, Paris, Turin, and Vienna; and North American collections in Berkeley, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Worcester.

An audio tour, part of the Metropolitan's new Key to the Met Audio Guide, is available for rental at the entrance to the exhibition ($5; $4.50 for members).

Two fully illustrated books will accompany the exhibition. The first, a catalogue for the exhibition, features essays by an international group of scholars. Contributors are James P. Allen, Susan Allen, Julie Anderson, Dieter Arnold, Dorothea Arnold, Nadine Cherpion, Nicholas Grimal, Krzysztof Grzymski, Zahi Hawass, Marsha Hill, Peter Jánosi, Audran Labrousse, Jean-Philippe Lauer, Jean Leclant, Peter der Manuelian, Nicholas Millet, Diana Craig Patch, Elena Pischikova, Patricia Rigault, Catharine H. Roehrig, and Christiane Ziegler. Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and distributed by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., the catalogue is available in English- and French-language versions and includes essays on Old Kingdom royal and non-royal sculpture, reliefs, architecture, jewelry, and furniture. Additional essays describe the contributions of American, Egyptian, and European archaeologists to the study of the Pyramid Age. One catalogue essay, written by the Egyptian scholar Zahi Hawass, records for the first time a complete history of scholarship and excavations at Old Kingdom sites by Egyptian archaeologists. The richly illustrated catalogue, including drawings, excavation photographs, and more than 300 new color photographs of the objects in the exhibition, will be available in both softcover ($50) and clothbound ($75) editions in the Museum's Bookshops.

The publication is made possible by The Adelaide Milton de Groot Fund, in memory of the de Groot and Hawley families.

A second book, When the Pyramids Were Built: Egyptian Art in the Old Kingdom, written by Dorothea Arnold, will be published by the Metropolitan Museum in association with Rizzoli International Publications. Intended as an introduction to Old Kingdom art for the general public, the 144-page book will be available in the Museum's shops for $35.

Educational Programs
A variety of educational programs will be offered, including gallery talks and lectures for general visitors as well as classes for students, teachers, and families. A series of documentary and feature films, including the classic Land of the Pharoahs (1955), directed by Howard Hawks, will be shown. A complete schedule is available in the bimonthly Calendar or can be obtained by calling (212) 570-3710.

Recent archaeological discoveries in Giza, Saqqara, and Dahshur will be discussed in an international symposium on November 7 in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. No reservations are necessary for this program, which is offered free with Museum admission contribution.

Beginning in the summer of 1999, "The Art of Ancient Egypt: A Web Resource" will be available on the Museum's Web site. A thematic exploration of ancient Egyptian art, it will feature more than 40 major works from the permanent collection of the Department of Egyptian Art, plus archival photography and film of excavation sites, over 100 pages of commentary, a comprehensive timeline, and curriculum materials for teachers. For the duration of the Metropolitan's presentation of Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, more than 30 objects from the exhibition — including loans and works from the permanent collection — will be highlighted.

Educational programs have been supported by the Malcolm Hewitt Wiener Foundation.

A semi-staged realization of The Magic Flute, Mozart's operatic vision of ancient Egypt, will be performed by the Opera Orchestra of New York on October 10 at The Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing. Tickets for this subscription program ($50) may be ordered by calling (212) 570-3949.

The exhibition is organized at the Metropolitan Museum by Dorothea Arnold, the Lila Acheson Wallace Curator in Charge of Egyptian Art, with James Allen, Curator of Egyptian Art; Dieter Arnold, Curator of Egyptian Art; Marsha Hill, Associate Curator of Egyptian Art; and Catharine H. Roehrig, Associate Curator of Egyptian Art.

Travel Itinerary
The exhibition is on view at the Grand Palais, Paris, through July 12, 1999. After its showing at the Metropolitan, it will travel to the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, (February 13 through May 22, 2000).

The art of ancient Egypt is the subject of several other special exhibitions at museums around the country this year. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond is hosting Splendors of Ancient Egypt, currently on view through November 28. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, will feature Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamen, opening on November 14. From its extensive permanent collection of Egyptian art, the Metropolitan Museum has lent a large statue of Queen Hatshepsut to the exhibition in Richmond and 30 works to the exhibition in Boston.

July 19, 1999

Please note: Listed below are the dates used in the galleries of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The dates are approximate and reflect current scholarship.

Three kings — Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure — are buried in the famous pyramids at Giza. These kings are also known in our day by the Greek equivalents of their names — Cheops, Chephren, and Mykerinus (Latinized: Mycerinus), respectively — which were first recorded in the writings of the traveller and historian Herodotus (fifth century B.C.E.).

The names of several other Egyptian rulers have not been confirmed with certainty, or are known to us in several variants. Where this is the case, the names in question are provided in parentheses.

OLD KINGDOM (ca. 2649-2150 B.C.E.)
Dynasty 3      (ca. 2649-2575 B.C.E.)
Zanakht      (ca. 2649-2630 B.C.E.)
Djoser      (ca. 2630-2611 B.C.E.)
Sekhemkhet      (ca. 2611-2605 B.C.E.)
Khaba      (ca. 2605-2599 B.C.E.)
Huni      (ca. 2599-2575 B.C.E.)

Dynasty 4      (ca. 2575-2465 B.C.E.)
Snefru      (ca. 2575-2551 B.C.E.)
Khufu      (ca. 2551-2528 B.C.E.)
Djedefre (Radjedef)      (ca. 2528-2520 B.C.E.)
Khafre      (ca. 2520-2494 B.C.E.)
Nebka II     (ca. 2494-2490 B.C.E.)
Menkaure     (ca. 2490-2472 B.C.E.)
Shepseskaf      (ca. 2472-2467 B.C.E.)
(Thamphthis)       (ca. 2467-2465 B.C.E.)

Dynasty 5      (ca. 2465-2323 B.C.E.)
Userkaf      (ca. 2465-2458 B.C.E.)
Sahure      (ca. 2458-2446 B.C.E.)
Neferirkare      (ca. 2446-2438 B.C.E.)
Shepseskare      (ca. 2438-2431 B.C.E.)
Neferefre (Raneferef)       (ca. 2431-2420 B.C.E.)
Niuserre      (ca. 2420-2389 B.C.E.)
Menkauhor      (ca. 2389-2381 B.C.E.)
Isesi      (ca. 2381-2353 B.C.E.)
Unas      (ca. 2353-2323 B.C.E.)

Dynasty 6      (ca. 2323-2150 B.C.E.)
Teti      (ca. 2323-2291 B.C.E.)
Userkare      (ca. 2291-2289 B.C.E.)
Pepi I      (ca. 2289-2255 B.C.E.)
Merenre I      (ca. 2255-2246 B.C.E.)
Pepi II      (ca. 2246-2152 B.C.E.)
Merenre II      (ca. 2152 B.C.E.)
Netjerkare Siptah (Nitocris)       (ca. 2152-2150 B.C.E.)

July 19, 1999

The Department of Egyptian Art was established in 1906 to oversee The Metropolitan Museum of Art's ancient Egyptian collection, which had been growing since 1874. Today, after almost a century of collecting and excavating, the collection has become one of the finest and most comprehensive in the world.

In 1906, the Museum also began an excavation program in Egypt that continued for thirty years and brought innumerable pieces of great artistic, historical, and cultural importance into the collection. Because of this work in Egypt, the Museum's collection is particularly rich in both the royal and private art of the Middle (ca. 2040-1640 B.C.E.) and early New Kingdoms (ca. 1640-1450 B.C.E.) and in the funerary art of the Third Intermediate and Late Periods (ca. 1070-332 B.C.E.).

Under an agreement with the Egyptian Government, the Metropolitan Museum originally was granted permission to excavate at three sites — Lisht, the cemetery of the Middle Kingdom capital, located in the pyramid field just south of Cairo; el-Kharga Oasis, the location of the temple of Hibis; and in western Thebes, the temple and cemetery site opposite Luxor, the seat of worship of the god Amon and religious (and, at times, also political) capital of Egypt — with the understanding that the materials discovered there would be divided equally between the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the Metropolitan. Subsequently, Egypt granted access to other sites as well.

Between 1906 and 1935, the Metropolitan Museum conducted fourteen seasons of excavations at Lisht. The excavation teams at Lisht were led by the noted Egyptologists Albert M. Lythgoe, the first curator of the Museum's newly formed Department of Egyptian Art; Arthur C. Mace, who had worked with W. M. Flinders Petrie and George Reisner and was to assist Howard Carter in the Tomb of Tutankhamun; and Ambrose Lansing, a student of Leipzig University professor Georg Steindorff. In addition to the innumerable important finds resulting from the extensive excavations in Lisht's two pyramids — one of Amenemhat I, the first king of the 12th Dynasty (ca. 1991-1962 B.C.E.), and the other of his son and successor Senwosret I (ca. 1971-1926 B.C.E.) — the Museum team's study of the settlement around these monuments helped to establish the historical foundation of the Middle Kingdom and contributed to our understanding of the daily life of its citizens, the achievements of its artists, and its commercial ties with other lands. At Thebes, Herbert E. Winlock discovered an untouched chamber in the tomb of the Chancellor Meketre (ca. 1990 B.C.E.) with 24 pristinely preserved models of painted wood, showing Meketre voyaging in Nile boats and supervising a cattle count, together with three-dimensional representations of his garden, stable, workshops, and kitchen. Other spectacular finds at Thebes comprised hundreds of fragments from smashed statues of Queen Hatshepsut (ca. 1473-1458 B.C.E.) in an ancient quarry. Reassembled by Museum conservators, the statues today are masterpieces both in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

The first phase of the Museum's work in Egypt came to an end in 1937, to recommence at Lisht in 1984. Since 1971, other excavations have also taken place at Memphis, which was the capital of the Old Kingdom and a prominent city until the Roman Period, the Senenmut Tombs, and the Tomb of the Three Wives of Thutmosis III. Currently, the Metropolitan Museum continues excavations at Lisht and explores the pyramid precinct of Senwosret III (ca. 1878-1841 B.C.E.) at Dahshur.

Today the collection of the Department of Egyptian Art comprises an estimated 36,000 objects, dating from 30,000 B.C.E. to 641 C.E. — from prehistoric Egypt through the Byzantine occupation during the reign of Emperor Justinian. Overall, the artistic and archaeological works in the collection reflect the history, daily life, and religious beliefs and aesthetic values of the ancient Egyptians throughout their great civilization. Virtually all of the objects in the collection are on view.

In 1996, the Museum reinstalled more than 900 objects from its collection of art from the Amarna Period (ca. 1353-1336 B.C.E.) and the Post-Amarna Period (ca. 1336-1295 B.C.E.) in newly designed gallery spaces. Reliefs, sculpture, painting, and minor arts of this era are uncommonly rich in artistic invention, breaking with canonical traditions that had endured in Egyptian art for more than 1700 years.

Other highlights of the collection are: the Old Kingdom mastaba tomb of Perneb from Saqqara; the Meketre models from Thebes, the statuary of Queen Hatshepsut and royal portrait sculpture of Dynasty 12 and 13 that are among the greatest masterpieces of portraiture in the ancient world.

An important more recent addition to the collection is the Temple of Dendur in The Sackler Wing, an Egyptian monument built (ca. 15 B.C.E.) by the Emperor Augustus, who succeeded the famous Cleopatra VII in ruling Egypt and Lower Nubia. Presented to the United States as a gift from the Egyptian government in recognition of the American contribution to the international campaign to save the ancient Nubian monuments (especially the rock temples of Abu Simbel), the Dendur Temple has been reassembled as it appeared on the banks of the Nile, in a modern simulation of the entire site, with a reflecting pool representing the Nile, a terrace, a court, foundation walls, and a hillside of stone.

July 19, 1999

DOROTHEA ARNOLD, Lila Acheson Wallace Curator in Charge, Department of Egyptian Art
Dorothea Arnold, an authority on ancient Egyptian art and archaeology, was elected Lila Acheson Wallace Curator in Charge of the Department of Egyptian Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991. Since assuming that post, her responsibilities have included the organization of numerous exhibitions at the Metropolitan — The Gold of Meroe (1993); Pharaoh's Gifts: Stone Vessels from Ancient Egypt (1994); An Egyptian Bestiary (1995); Textiles of Late Antiquity (1995); and Queen Nefertiti and the Royal Women: Images of Beauty from Ancient Egypt (1996) — as well as the reinstallation, in 1996, of more than 900 artifacts in the Museum's recently redesigned Amarna Galleries, which feature Egyptian art created between 1353 and 1295 B.C.E. In addition to her curatorial responsibilities, she has participated actively in the Museum's ongoing program of excavations in Egypt.

Born in Leipzig and educated in Tübingen and Munich, Germany, Dorothea Arnold received her doctorate in Classical Archaeology and Egyptology from the University of Tübingen. Her dissertation, titled "Die Polykletschule" (The School of Polykleitos), was published in 1969 by the German Archaeological Institute. Subsequently, working from the Institute's Cairo office, Dr. Arnold served for more than a decade as archaeologist and ceramologist for excavations at Thebes (a seat of worship of the god Amon and the site of the many decorated tombs, Tutankhamun's among them), Qasr Sagha (where a Middle Kingdom temple and settlement were discovered and dated), Lisht (the cemeteries of the capital of the Middle Kingdom), and Dahshur (the site of the first true pyramids and three important pyramids of the Middle Kingdom).

Dr. Arnold joined The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1985 as Associate Curator in the Department of Egyptian Art — a post she held for three years — prior to her appointment, in 1988, to the position of Administrator pro tem. From 1984 to 1990, Dr. Arnold was a full-time staff member in the Metropolitan Museum's excavations at Lisht.

The author of numerous books, catalogues, essays, and scholarly articles published in the United States and abroad, Dr. Arnold is a corresponding member of the German Institute of Archaeology, a member of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, and a member of the International Association of Egyptologists and the American Research Center in Egypt.

July 19, 1999

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