Ageless amity

By

There is something about this Egyptian sculpture which appeals to the part of the imagination that is wakened by secretiveness. It is a masterpiece of understatement. The ''Nobleman and his Wife,'' carved out of their block of limestone more than four thousand years ago, are rendered with all the placid dignity, all the correctness, all the sacred formality of which solemnly monumental Egyptian sculpture was capable. They seem as obedient to the constructional regulations of traditional art in Egypt as their stately lion-footed chair is to the unquestioned principles of chairmaking. They have their dominant frontal aspect, subsidiary side-views, and back. They sit, with the endless patience of the immovable, bolt upright, wigs immaculate, the fall and pleating of their clothes neat and tidy, their eyes and their feet facing forwards with stylized inevitability.

And yet the viewer still feels he is presented with a genuine married couple: a man and woman who, once released from the stiff requirements of ''posing'' for their ''likeness,'' would turn out to be as normal as you or I, rather conventional, perhaps, aware of a certain status in the eyes of their world, but human enough, capable of vulnerability and tenderness, and probably even laughter. There is nothing, at least, to stop one from imagining these things. They simply do not seem as foreign to our experience as a pair of human beings from such a distant period, and from a culture with beliefs so entirely different from today's, might reasonably be expected to be. Secreted behind that propriety, that hint of dressed-up boredom, are breathing people.

This work is just one sculpture in the impressive Egyptian collection belonging to the British Museum. In the freshly accessible, recent rearrangement of these Egyptian sculptures in the museum's long classical gallery, the ''Nobleman and his Wife,'' from the 18th dynasty, or ''new kingdom,'' are happily situated about halfway down, and their scale -- they must be about life-size -- is pleasantly surprising after some of the colossal monuments and fragments just encountered. Such display of sheer power through the enormous is certainly characteristic of much Egyptian sculpture, but to us this seems to be brow-beating tyranny rather than art. The noble couple come as a relief because it is pleasant to identify with a sculpture, rather than be diminished by it.

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The purpose of this carving -- and it was never intended to be shown publicly in a museum but to be hidden inside a tomb, completely unseen -- was not so much to give as a record or memorial of the individuals it represents as (magically, perhaps) to capture their continuing identity.

It was integrally involved with their belief in immortality. In the opening chapter of ''The Story of Art,'' Ernst Gombrich notes that ''One Egyptian word for sculptor was actually He-who-keeps-alive.' '' What this art historian then adds about the portrait sculptures of the earlier ''old kingdom'' in Egypt is equally applicable to this statue from the ''new kingdom'':

''There is a solemnity and simplicity about them which one does not easily forget. One sees that the sculptor was not trying to flatter his sitter, or to preserve a jolly moment in his life. He was concerned only with essentials. Every lesser detail he left out. . . . The observation of nature, and the regularity of the whole, are so evenly balanced that they impress us as being lifelike and yet remote and enduring.''

One of the ''observations of nature'' that is so appealing in the ''Nobleman and his Wife'' is the way his left hand steals across to hold hers, almost as if only he and she are aware of it (though they almost pretend not to be). It is an irresistibly warming touch, made more gently human by its contrast with the cool and hieratic tone the work generally preserves.

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