When WAG asked me to cover the subject of animals in the “The Dawn of Egyptian Art” exhibit, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t immediately see the connection between pre-dynastic art and modern-day pet ownership, but hey: It’s The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I never pass up an opportunity to go there.
My assignment began in the best possible way, curled up on the couch with a cup of tea and a book, in this case, the exhibit catalog. As you might imagine, the images were beautiful. But it was in the writing that I first began to see the relationship between then and now. It seems that the ancient Egyptians had a strong desire to control the natural world. Hmm. Sounds familiar.
Thousand of years ago (seriously, thousands – 4000 to 2650 B.C.), humans were a bit short on modern conveniences. They were not able to forge metals or paint on canvas but expressed their artistic vision with pottery, ivory, serpentine and graywake. Using rudiments of hieroglyphics, early Egyptians put it all out there in the only way they could – through pictures and symbols. As I read through the book, I had a flush of gratitude to the archeologists whose passion is to collect these fragments from deep in the earth, and to The Met for organizing the many treasures from around the world into an exhibit that will be available until Aug. 5.
My visit to The Met was scheduled for a Saturday. I asked my best girlfriend to accompany me – my 9-year-old daughter. We’d ogle the exhibits, eat a little lunch and do some city stuff. A side note: I’m sure the ancient Egyptians had some great times, but you really can’t beat a beautiful day in New York City with your kid.
Ambling through The Great Hall, we made our way to exhibits old and new. It was like a journey through time and space. We peered at European sculpture, medieval art and England’s silverworks. As we arrived at our destination, I was immediately taken by the shift in textures and themes. No gold, jewels or polished metals adorned this collection. No portraits extolling the leaders of this time period or adornments to separate the classes. During this stage of our evolution, survival was clearly the central theme, the success of which was directly related to an ability to control the natural world and all the animals that roamed it.
Perhaps what was most striking to me was that each piece in the exhibit focused clearly on an animal of one type or another. When humans were depicted, they were either hunting, escaping or worshiping animals. The animals did not symbolize pleasure or enjoyment but rather idol worship, domination, control or lack thereof.
A trio of animals – a hippopotamus, snake and alligator – powerfully represented danger, unpredictability and chaos. Imagine you are an early Egyptian hunter, venturing into the deep waters of the Nile. Your survival depends on your catch, but the waters are filled with predators. Alligators reach out of the water to snatch an overhanging arm, hippos capsize fragile boats and snakes drop from overhanging trees. Interestingly, early Egyptians didn’t swim so the water itself was deadly as well. On these works, these animals are depicted as moving in circles, representing a wish for control and good fortune or moving randomly, symbolizing fear and death.
The early Egyptians gave symbolic significance to animals, often relating to the animal’s routine behavior. The nocturnal, roaming jackal was believed to watch over the dead while aggressive, territorial baboons symbolized protectiveness. And the tilapia fish represented rebirth. Why? It seems that the tilapia, when it is not lying gutted and wrapped in your local supermarket cold case, gives birth to its hatchlings through its mouth. The things you learn at the museum.
As we continued through the exhibit, we learned that the giraffe symbolized the future; the wild dog, so protective of its young, embodied motherhood; and the falcon, flying close to the sun and sky, became the ultimate symbol of freedom. I found it interesting that some of these symbols persist today.
The animal metaphors and imagery were so powerful that even without written words, the desire to control the environment came through loud and clear. In early Egypt, rulers achieved power not by physical strength or divine intervention but by courage and the ability to face the natural world. In the 21st century, it’s not so different. People want some degree of control over the environment. I am often called in to help people manage unruly creatures – not hippos, giraffes or baboons but household dogs. And I succeed not because I physically overpower them, but because I am able to instill calm through understanding. And that is a form of control.
Our day in New York City ended with an afternoon performance of the Broadway show, “Wicked.” In a surprising bit of synergistic symbolism, the musical, a parallel to the 1939 film classic “The Wizard of Oz,” features a poignant, animal-themed side note. The pompous Great Oz masks his feelings of inadequacy through the inhumane control of the citizens and animals in his village.
Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not.
For more on “The Dawn of Egyptian Art,” visit metmuseum.org.