New look at old sculptures

I worried when I first heard of the Egyptian Museum’s curatorial mash-up, sprinkling Alberto Giacometti sculptures into the ancient collection. A modernist and the ancients — potentially interesting, I thought, like seeing Picasso’s work next to the African art he drew on, but plenty of room for over-curated fluff.

We stopped by today. I shouldn’t have worried. It’s brilliant, shedding light on Giacometti in ways I would likely never have noticed on my own. He was apparently entranced by Egyptian art, spending long periods of time studying and sketching ancient sculpture. The collection shows books that had belonged to him, with his own versions of pieces sketched in next to pictures of the originals.

The exhibition works in much the same way, placing a dozen or so of his sculptures next to pieces of a genre that served as obvious models, or inspiration. Tall, eerie striding man next to a classic Egyptian walking man with one leg outstretched, portrait busts that shared structure (and almost the same foreheads), twisted beautiful figures that display feeling and personality in stylized form.

Well worth the visit, particularly on a free museum day.

I’m only beginning to understand Egyptian sculpture, thanks to a visit to the Met last summer. I’d always loved Greek and the best of the Roman (Romans copied dreadfully, but they also gave real personality to what in Greece was often simply beautiful). But even thousands of years before the Greeks, the Egyptians were creating busts and full statues of stunning, almost frighteningly realistic personality. In the Altes, Nefertiti’s head gets all the press, but a little piece called the Green Head is far better — a stone head of a priest, I think, that expresses force and power and personhood in every expert line.