Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 6, 2018
Adela Oppenheim, Dorothea Arnold, Dieter Arnold, and Kei Yamamoto, eds. Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom Exh. cat. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. 400 pp.; 365 color ills.; 42 b/w ills. Hardcover $75.00 (9781588395641)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 12, 2015–January 24, 2016
Installation view, Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 12, 2015–January 24, 2016 (photograph © 2016; provided by Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom, along with its corresponding exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a much-needed and long sought-after addition to the corpus of Egyptological studies. With the exception of such classic treatises as Wolfram Grajetzki’s The Middle Kingdom of Ancient Egypt: History, Archaeology and Society (London: Duckworth Egyptology, 2006) and the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Pharaohs and Mortals: Egyptian Art in the Middle Kingdom (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), few books have been wholly dedicated to the art of the Middle Kingdom. This stands in stark contrast to the Old Kingdom, which entices readers with its pyramids, and the New Kingdom, the period replete with famous names like Hatshepsut, Tutankhamen, and Nefertiti. As such, the Metropolitan Museum’s catalogue is an essential addition to scholarly books on Egyptian art and architecture.

The title of the catalogue, Ancient Egypt Transformed, immediately identifies the book’s central premise: the Middle Kingdom was an important period of dynamic change in Egyptian society and visual culture. This simple statement challenges the common misconception of Middle Kingdom art, and Egyptian art in general, as conservatively stagnant. The catalogue’s twenty essays, supported by 222 beautifully illustrated objects, focus on the transformative trends of Middle Kingdom society and literature as the driving force behind radical, although at times subtle, changes in the art and architecture of the period. This unifying theme is ambitious, providing more than the simple chronological or thematic approach that dominates so many exhibition catalogues.

The book opens with an introductory essay, “What Was the Middle Kingdom?” by Adela Oppenheim, which outlines the organizing principles of the catalogue and exhibition and provides a basic overview of Middle Kingdom history and society. Articulating the exhibition’s major themes, this essay argues that Middle Kingdom society was not, as has often been said, motivated by nostalgic archaism or the intentional evocation of the past glories of the Old Kingdom. Rather, Oppenheim posits that the transformations that characterize Middle Kingdom society, literature, and art continue directly from, and expand upon, Old Kingdom cultural practices and forms.

The introductory essay is followed by five essays collectively titled “Aspects of Middle Kingdom Art,” each of which delves into essential art-historical issues for the Middle Kingdom, including architecture, the architectural settings for statues, artists and workshops, and the visual programs of elite tombs and ubiquitous Middle Kingdom stelae. Although brief, each essay presents an overview of its particular topic in detail, including discussions of important case studies. At the heart of each of these essays is the central theme of the Middle Kingdom’s transformation of Old Kingdom artistic and architectural traditions, a background in which the authors appear to assume that the reader is well versed. Dorothea Arnold’s highly informative essay “Statues in their Settings: Encountering the Divine” works in many ways as a sequel to Dieter Arnold’s essay “Old Kingdom Statues in their Architectural Setting” in Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1999), the catalogue for the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition of Old Kingdom art that ran from September 1999 to January 2000. Indeed, most of the essays in Ancient Egypt Transformed can be related directly to chapters found in Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids, which has become one of the standard resources for the study of Old Kingdom visual culture. In much the same way that the Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom built upon Old Kingdom traditions, the editors constructed this volume on its Old Kingdom predecessor. Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids therefore operates as a necessary foundation for a thorough appreciation of the goals of the present volume, particularly for these five core essays.

The subsequent catalogue of objects is organized thematically with twelve short complementary essays. The essays touch on critical aspects of Middle Kingdom society, some of which—like Richard Parkinson’s invaluable and succinct essay “The Impact of Middle Kingdom Literature Ancient and Modern”—are not strictly art historical. In each case, the essay is followed by object entries, although the relationship between the essays and catalogue objects is not always strong. The essays that focus primarily on visual topics, particularly the essay exploring kingship and royal sculpture by Dorothea Arnold, “Pharaoh: Power and Performance,” are especially adept at incorporating both the overall theme of change and continuity and the catalogue objects themselves. Arnold’s essay is outstanding in its use of careful readings of sculpture to illustrate the radical shifts in royal self-representation during the Middle Kingdom, and the thirty-seven catalogue entries that follow manage to capture the brilliance of the artists and successfully relate the works to the growing sense of individualism that came to characterize the sculptures of the later Middle Kingdom. Also notable is Stephen Quirke’s chapter, “Understanding Death: A Journey between Worlds,” which is highly informative in its almost encyclopedic synthesis of Middle Kingdom funerary beliefs and practices, although it does less to advance the overall thesis that the Middle Kingdom was a period of drastic transformation built upon cultural continuity.

Other essays focus on subjects that, while essential to a more holistic understanding of the Middle Kingdom and its visual culture, do not always lend themselves to successful integration of the exhibition objects. Wolfram Grajetzki’s chapter on Middle Kingdom courtiers, “The Pharaoh’s Subjects: Court and Provinces,” for example, offers a highly detailed discussion of changes in the structure of court society. Grajetzki’s essay draws almost entirely from historical documents, including titles, extant administrative documents, and tomb scenes of daily life and leisure activities, without fully integrating the catalogue objects that follow, despite their clear implications for changes in attitudes towards courtiers’ positions in relationship to royal authority and the nobility’s evolving sense of self-identity.

Two essays complete the volume: “Middle Kingdom History: An Overview,” by Wolfram Grajetzki, and “Excavations by the Metropolitan Museum of Art at Middle Kingdom Sites,” coauthored by Metropolitan Museum curators Dieter Arnold and Adela Oppenheim. Here Grajetzki shines, conveying not only a detailed summary of Middle Kingdom history but also an analysis of the sources available to historians to form an understanding of the period’s history. While readers of this catalogue might have been better served by the placement of this essay at the beginning of the book, it nonetheless provides the reader with a thorough overview of royal history, the changing roles of courtiers in Middle Kingdom society, and international diplomacy during the period.

The editors of Ancient Egypt Transformed set out an ambitious agenda: not only to familiarize readers with the key aspects of Middle Kingdom visual culture and society but also to demonstrate that the transformation of the art and architecture during this dynamic period is grounded in the ideals of the Old Kingdom. While this is a lofty goal for a single volume, when taken in conjunction with Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids this catalogue is highly successful. The editors and contributors effectively argue for an understanding of the Middle Kingdom that is not bound by antiquated ideas of archaism and classicism but instead sees it as an era of change and innovation built upon cultural continuity. Highly informative and rich with detail, this catalogue is not bogged down by complicated Egyptological theory and debate. The book is therefore easily accessible to a wide range of readers. As a whole this volume, with its well-written essays and catalogue entries and stunning visuals, finally gives the Middle Kingdom the recognition it so rightly deserves.

Patrick Salland
Independent scholar

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