Remembrance of Bon Temps Past:
One night not long ago in the Met’s Lehman galleries, I was chatting with director Thomas Campbell about how modernist the works around us seemed. This was notable because some of them were made about 6,000 years ago.
We were at the opening of “The Dawn of Egyptian Art,” a special exhibition featuring objects made between 4000 and 2650 B.C., before the pharaohs and the dynasties and the pyramids and most of the treasures in the Met’s beloved Egyptian collections (including William, the adorable blue hippo dated ca. 1961–1878 B.C, who turns up at the end of the show anyway).
Brancusi was the most frequent spirit summoned that night as we wandered through the ancient menagerie, marveling at the sleek, mysterious abstractions of hippos, along with birds, frogs, turtles, jackals, scorpions, baboons, lions, elephants, humans, and more (Robert Gober and even Eva Hesse came to mind too).
Indeed, Brancusi’s 1923 sculpture Bird in Space, on view in the Met’s modern-art galleries not far away, looks like a direct descendant of the so-called Bird Lady, dated ca. 3650 B.C. (so-called because her “beak” may actually be a nose, the catalogue explains). The official name of this painted ceramic figure, arms aloft in dance, greeting, or something else, is Celebrant Figurine. The large-breasted woman, who more typically appears naked in pre-dynastic Egyptian art but here wears a white skirt, will certainly be familiar to habitués of the Brooklyn Museum, where she has resided since her discovery in Ma’mariya in 1907.
But she will also resonate with visitors of Bon Temps, Louisiana, the fictional setting of HBO’s vampire drama, True Blood. Thanks to some art-history minded production designers, fans might recall, Brooklyn’s early Egyptian figurine was the model for a prop at the crux of Season Two—the statue discovered in the house of a Maenad-like creature, Maryann. The primitive-yet-modern sensibility of the image, HBO told the museum, was intended to reflect the timeless nature of this character, who proved awfully hard to get rid of.
When Season Five of True Blood starts tomorrow, we’ll be looking for more correspondences between HBO’s vampire world and our art-museum world. After all, they both have tombs with a view.
Celebrant figurine (“Bird woman”), Naqada IIa, ca. 3650 BC. Provenance: el-Ma’mariya, Burial 2 (excavated by Henri de Morgan, 1906–07), pottery (Nile clay) and paint. Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edward Wilbour Fund, 1907. Image courtesy Brooklyn Museum, New York.