Thursday, 18 June 2009

Early civilisation, part 7: The art of ancient Egypt

Around 10,000–5000 years ago at the turn of the Pleistocene, north Africa was becoming dryer. Its inhabitants moved towards the Nile, a 4000-mile water source that ran like a thread through the arid landscape. Not only did the river attract game animals, its periodic floods made the neighbouring land very fertile for the growing of crops. In Jaromir Malek’s phrase, “ancient Egypt was created by the Nile”.[1]

A chain of cities grew up along the Nile, uniting in around 3100 BCE to produce a civilisation we now know as ancient Egypt. Large-scale agriculture required organisation and centralisation, and this combined with the wealth created by surpluses formed the basis of a class structure, whose social apex was a god-king, the Pharaoh. The pre-eminence of the Pharaoh and his relationship to the divine and the dead is inseparable from Egypt’s most accomplished art.

The making of Egypt

Egypt was home to a series of Neolithic cultures that produced pottery, rock art, jewellery, statuettes and other items, often preserved as grave goods. By the end of this Predynastic period and in transition from the Naqada II culture, the region began to be unified and we find evidence of an emerging hierarchy. Egyptian tradition credits this to a king named Menes, who may simply represent a number of early leaders in the period 3200–3000 BCE. In this context, the Narmer Palette is very significant. Made around 3150 BCE, it depicts the king Narmer, who is believed by some historians to have brought together the north and south, or to be one of several kings responsible.

The Narmer PaletteThe Narmer Palette, carved from siltstone and found in the ancient town of Hierakonpolis. Large image here.

Egyptian culture of the pharaonic period had its own character from the beginning, building upon its Neolithic antecedents. The Palette already shows a recogniseably ‘Egyptian’ style with its strict sense of order, arrangement into bands or ‘registers’, and the characteristic stylisation of the figures. From this point art “became the main vehicle for expressing the ideology on which the Egyptian kingdom was based, especially the definition of the role of the king in Egyptian society and his relationship to the gods and to ordinary Egyptians” (Malek).

The Egyptians rapidly mastered a variety of art forms, such as carvings, pottery, furniture, metalworking, glassworking, sculpture and architecture, and absorbed new forms and materials as their civilisation developed. Native materials included an abundance of stone, such as diorite, alabaster and limestone, whereas others were imported: copper from Sinai, timber from Palestine, gold from Nubia. The decorative material called faience, in which a core of powdered quartz was coated in a glaze, often in a rich blue, was moulded into a range of small items. The human body itself was adorned with makeup, kohl being used as a distinctive eye paint.

The conventions of Egyptian art seem to have been established by the beginning of the Dynastic period, within a space of a few generations. This speed was in marked contrast to the conservatism that followed.

The ancient artist was a specialist employed by priests and princes, kept busy in workshops attached to temples and palaces. These roles were often handed from father to son. Reliefs and paintings show us craftsmen making sculptures, making music and dancing, etc. Egyptian artists had the financial and intellectual resources of a powerful civilisation behind them, and boasted some of the most impressive artistic achievements of the ancient world. The best works have been equalled but arguably never surpassed.

The form of Egyptian art

As with other early civilisations, very little of Egypt’s art could be described as ‘art for art’s sake’. Egyptian art was functional, either as an everyday item or as a political, funerary or religious object. For reasons we have discussed, this functionality does not detract from its value as art. Instead, the aesthetic and functional aspects of an object went hand in hand.

The aesthetic aspects aligned with a particular way of seeing. Modern Western artistic practice since the Renaissance, influenced by bourgeois individualism, has tended to show how the world looks to one individual at one moment, as if through the lens of a camera. The Egyptians showed little awareness of perspective, and never discovered the dynamic three-dimensional modelling mastered by the Greeks. This was not down to the shortcomings of their artists — anyone doubting their ability to work naturalistically need only look at the portrait busts of Nefertiti or Vizier Ankh-haf, or later the haunting Faiyum mummy portraits.

Bust of NefertitiBust of Nefertiti, ca. 1350 BCE. Painted stucco on a limestone core.

Rather, individualism and ephemerality had nothing in common with the worldview of this ancient civilisation, whose artists worked according to very different conventions to our own. Rather than attempting the illusion of space, ancient Egyptian art was schematic, or diagrammatic. It used flat colours and shapes and generally had a very shallow sense of depth. It is therefore no surprise that relief was a popular form, either raised, where the surrounding stone was cut away from the image, or sunk, where the image was cut into the surrounding stone. Painting used the same visual style but was cheaper and allowed a little more freedom.

The goal of Egyptian art was to preserve the appearance of things as completely as possible, without foreshortening. Each element of an object was drawn from the angle at which its appearance was most typical, then assembled into a whole that was not naturalistic, but was in its own way consistent.

Agricultural scene from the tomb of NakhtAgricultural scene from the tomb of Nakht, 18th Dynasty Thebes, showing the distinctive Egyptian conventions for rendering two-dimensional figures.

In two dimensions, the head is shown in profile but the eye and eyebrow are seen as if from straight ahead. The chest is shown frontally, but the waist is in profile, and the limbs are shown from the side so their articulation is most clear. The left foot is advanced so that we may see there are two feet. By assembling these conventions, a figure can be made as complete as possible. One method of ideological differentiation between figures is scale: an important person, usually male, is drawn bigger than his wife, children, servants or subjects. Various other rules follow, for example that we are sometimes allowed to see through the side of a box or vase so that an object inserted into it can be seen in full. Men tend to be painted red and women yellow.

Most images come side by side with texts describing what is happening, who is shown, or other information. Stylised images blend seamlessly with hieroglyphs, which are themselves pictures and become a part of the composition.

The result was a precise and predictable rendering of the subject. Egyptian artists drew what they knew was there, not what they saw — their art was not only schematic but conceptual. This doesn’t mean that artists were entirely oblivious to perspective, viewpoint and so on, or that there were no deviations at all. See how the feet of the bottom two farmers above are invisible because they are standing amidst their crops. Artists found ways to introduce subtle variations to avoid monotony, and the static and highly conventionalised figures of gods and aristocrats contrast with more freely treated images of the lower classes. Paintings of animals in particular, perhaps because less depended upon animals’ place in the hierarchy, show a very keen eye for naturalistic detail and texture (see for example the famous image from the Tomb of Nebamun, whose unusually lively images have earned the unknown artist the label ‘the Michelangelo of antiquity’).

The use of colour complements the scheme, as it is taken from a very limited palette and applied flat without variations in shade. Objects are clearly outlined, mostly in black. Equally complementary is the use of registers, that is, the organisation of figures along horizontal lines that, one on top of the other, form vertical strips. Again the emphasis is upon symmetry, uniformity and clarity.

No treatises on art from ancient Egypt have come down to us. But an insight into the Egyptians’ methods can be gained from the unfinished tomb of Horemheb, and from a drawing at the tomb of Ramose, governor of Thebes at Luxor. Perhaps because of political upheaval or the moving of Ramose to Amarna, the tomb was not quite finished, and the drawing shows clearly the lines of a grid marked in red paint. The grid was established by 2000 BCE and appears time and again in both painting and sculpture — imposing a predictable and idealised order upon artists’ work.

A similar grid technique was used to mark out sections on a block of stone in preparation for a sculpture.

Statue of KhafraStatue of Khafra. Photo: José-Manuel Benito.

There was no role in ancient Egypt for the lithe and transitory dynamics of the human body later explored by the Greeks. Egyptian statues at their best are powerful and beautifully finished — they are also schematic extensions of the system we have just explored. The left foot of standing figures is set a little forward, just as the feet of painted figures were separated, and all gaze to the front in static poses. We must overcome any temptation to criticise this, because the statues were designed for a particular context. As votive images in which the gods manifested themselves, they were addressed frontally, and were often set into niches from which only a frontal approach was possible. Arnold Hauser offers a further insight:

In the frontal representation of the human figure, the forward turning of the upper part of the body is the expression of a definite and direct relationship to the onlooker... [It] makes a direct approach to the receptive subject; it is an art which both demands and shows public respect. Its approach to the beholder is an act of reverence, of courtesy and etiquette. All courtly and courteous art, intent on bestowing fame and praise, contains an element of the principle of frontality — of confronting the onlooker, the person who has commissioned the work, the master whom to serve and delight is the artist’s duty.[2]

Art and the Egyptian worldview

The schematic approach to art did not arise randomly. It was partly influenced by Egypt’s geography: isolated by deserts on the west and east and by the sea to the north, and built upon the mostly predictable floods of the Nile. The Egyptians distinguished between the ‘black land’, or cultivable area darkened by the Nile inundations, and the ‘red land’, the inhospitable deserts that surrounded it. The Pharaoh acted as the guarantor of fertility in the face of barrenness, of order amidst chaos. Malek argues that this duality between order and chaos is “all-pervading” in Egyptian art:

The examples are endless, and careful observation of almost any Egyptian work of art will reveal them... That the concept of duality encouraged balance and equivalence, especially in architecture, is immediately obvious to the viewer. Egyptian symmetry always emphasises the contrasting character of the two elements rather than that of two identical components, so that the balance is never absolute and can be more aptly described as opposition.[3]

Just as the human order was supposedly unchanging, so too was the cosmic. The Pharaohs mediated between humanity and heaven, ensuring the smooth running of the natural and human worlds, so challenging the order they represented was an affront to the gods [4]. The rules of art themselves were of divine origin and must be respected. As observed by the art historian H. W. Janson:

Since the scenes depict solemn and, as it were, timeless rituals, our artist was not concerned with the fact that this method of depicting the human body made movement or action almost impossible. Indeed, the frozen quality of the image seems well suited to the divine nature of the pharaoh. Mere mortals act; he simply is.[5]

Janson writes here about the Narmer Palette, but he might as well be describing any ancient Egyptian image. Egyptian art was produced under royal patronage, and its conventions were predicated upon the values of the ruling class. These interests were characterised by a preoccupation with stasis, permanence and a geometrical sense of order. This tendency can be seen in the art of other early civilisations, but perhaps most of all in Egypt, where art’s purpose was the creation of an idealised world, abstract and timeless. Realism and historical accuracy were not very important — thus scenes and exploits attributed to particular monarchs sometimes re-occur, ascribed to another monarch, centuries later. This is one reason why we must be cautious before interpreting scenes in Egyptian art as historically correct records of everyday life.

It is not hard to see the material basis of this worldview: the nobility created by the Neolithic Revolution had an absolute right to rule over everyone else, and lived in opulence in finely furnished houses with large staffs. It is little wonder that they insisted that this arrangement should not be changed, and encouraged ideologies that helped to perpetuate it.

One of the most powerful of these ideologies was of course religion. Egypt had hundreds of gods, some of them — such as Amun, Horus, Re and Osiris — more important than others. Their importance is nowhere clearer than in the huge amount of art created for the dead. The Egyptians believed that it was proper to provide for the afterlife — of the aristocracy, at any rate — so that it might be conducted in much the same way as before. This meant the storage not only of food, furniture, weapons and so on but of ‘art objects’ as well. The decorated tombs built for members of the ruling class were designed to last, just like the mummified remains inside, and those that were not plundered by robbers kept works of art protected.[6] (The most complete collection of funerary objects to survive was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.) Beginning as relatively modest box-like structures called mastabas, which had a burial chamber under the ground, Egyptian tombs progressed to step pyramids such as that of Djoser at Saqqara (“so that [the King] may mount up to heaven thereby”, as one inscription put it), and then to the perfected form exemplified by the great pyramids at Giza.

The step pyramid of Djoser at Saqqara, ca. 2800 BCE. Photo: Buyoof.

Other architectural forms included pylons, obelisks, and temples, the grandest of which is the one dedicated to Amun at Karnak. Art on this scale required not only central organisation but mass labour — it had a massive effect upon the everyday life of thousands of people.

It would be inaccurate to label all Egyptian artworks as masterful homages to the gods and aristocracy. The masterpieces now illustrated in art books and displayed by museums existed alongside a great number of cruder or less imposing works. The Egyptologist Gay Robins commented:

The difference between those objects that we prize as high-quality art and those we relegate to storage frequently derives from the status of their owners. The prized objects prove on examination to have been made almost invariably for kings and their high-ranking officials; the lesser pieces were usually commissioned by people lower in the social hierarchy. Since the king and his top officials commanded the most resources in ancient Egypt, it follows that they had access to the best artists... People of lesser rank who could not get access to first-class artists had to accept work from second-rate talents.[7]

Many craftspeople worked among the common people, and although the work was of lower quality, it was still important to them and offered a mix of the practical and the aesthetic. We have models of butchers, brewers or women grinding grain; musical instruments including the flute, harp and tambourine; erotic statuettes; even children’s toys. Modest secular objects included jewellery, mirrors, vases, game-boxes and decorated utensils such as combs. And one of the treasures of ancient Egyptian art is its poetry, which is more intimate, secular and human than the great works of public art and expresses feelings with which we can easily identify. Here is an excerpt from The Flower Song:

To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.

There were also variations across Egypt’s long history, such as the breakthroughs of individuality and turn to everyday subjects seen in the politically fractured Middle Kingdom. In this period the eternal confidence of the kings appears to have been shaken by years of internal warfare, as seen for example in statues of Senwosret III (example here), whose worldweary expressions betray the burden of rule. Religion was reinterpreted over the centuries, and there was a temporary break with tradition during the reign of Akhenaten. So Egyptian art is not quite as static and unchanging as has often been portrayed, although it showed a remarkable continuity over 3500 years.

Art of the Amarna period

The artists of ancient Egypt were expected to produce art that belonged to one official style, with little room for ‘self-expression’ or experimentation. There are thousands of human figures depicted in tomb paintings but all follow the same conventions. The forms for two- and three-dimensional art were ordained by the creator god Ptah, and artists’ role was to keep to these eternal rules as closely as they could. Also, we know from evidence at sites like Deir el-Medina, home to workers on the tombs of the Valley of the Kings, that artists worked in teams under close state supervision. It is a great lesson in the relative and social origin of our assumptions about art that despite these restrictive conditions, Eygptian artists created some of the great art of all time. They seem to have felt no need to sign their work or ‘immortalise’ themselves [8]. The only people to be immortalised were their aristocratic patrons, who were the principal audience for the art that glorified them and assisted their passage into the afterlife. This does not mean that all art was identical. As Malek pointed out, “the creativity of Egyptian artists lay in producing a new and pleasing combination using known elements”.

Egypt’s great example of aesthetic deviation was the so-called Amarna period, roughly corresponding to the reign of Akhenaten (1353–1335 BC) and taking its name from the new capital city [9]. Akhenaten, originally named Amenhotep IV, rejected the state pantheon and tried to create a cult to the sun-god Aten, a new world view celebrated in the monotheistic text Hymn to the Aten. This dramatic shift in religion was matched by a shift in art, though it is unclear how far Akhenaten intervened to bring this about. Amarna art introduces a new aesthetic language. Temples were built with courts open to the sun; diverse deities disappeared from reliefs and were replaced with new realistic subjects; and conventions softened to allow figures to show emotion, individualised details, and a languid sense of movement.

Relief in the Amarna styleA relief in limestone of a royal couple, in the Amarna style, ca. 1330 BCE.

The bust of Nefertiti already illustrated belongs to this period, found in the remains of the workshop of the sculptor Thutmose at Amarna. In it we see some of the elongation typical of the sculpture of the period. Akhenaten himself was portrayed in a very distinctive way, with an long head, almond eyes and thick lips, and feminine body. The reasons for this are still debated.

The essence of the innovations of Amarna art is a significant shift in ideology. As the old gods were replaced with monotheism, the old artistic conventions were shaken as well. As Hauser put it, “the formalism of the Middle Kingdom yields both in religion and art to a dynamic and naturalistic approach which encourages men to delight in making new discoveries.”

After Akhenaten’s death, his successor Tutankhamun renounced the new religion and artistic conventions were quietly restored. Already in Tutankhamun’s funerary goods, only glimpses remain of the Amarna style.


A great deal has been lost from the culture of ancient Egypt, and we have to piece together as much context as we can when trying to understand its art. The key theme is the religious and political role played by the pharaoh and his peers in the ruling class.

Ancient Egypt changed hands several times over its long history: the Hyksos, the Kushites, the Assyrians and the Persians each ruled it between periods of independence. In 332 BCE it fell to Alexander the Great, and was never to be independent again — the Greeks ruled Egypt through the Ptolemaic dynasty until the Romans incorporated it into their empire in 30 BCE. This was the beginning of the end for ancient Egyptian civilisation, not least because it became exposed to Christianity. This zealous new social force was savage in its treatment of Egyptian culture, mutilating buildings, destroying images of gods and kings, and burning papyrus texts in the name of their ‘one true god’. In 642 CE the Arabs conquered Egypt and the majority of Egyptians went down a new road again, that of Islam.

A great deal of Egypt’s ancient art has fortunately survived. And from it we can trace a line of influence into the art of archaic Greece, and from there to Rome, whose respect for this ancient culture can sometimes be seen in works made in a pastiche ‘Egyptian’ style. We will explore the art of these two later civilisations in later articles.

Further investigation

Youtube user easeen has posted the History Channel documentary Civilisations: The Way of Eternity (2006), a popular show narrated by Simon Chilvers. See the episode in six parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

[1] Jaromir Malek, Egyptian Art (1999).
[2] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, vol. 1 (1951).
[3] Malek, op. cit.
[4] Pharaohs were not normally thought to be gods themselves, but neither were they ordinary mortals. They interceded with the gods to keep society running smoothly, thus supposedly acting for the good of everyone. In the period following the Old Kingdom, a series of low floods hit agriculture and contributed to bringing the Pharaoh’s ability to rule into question.
[5] Janson, H. W. and Janson, A. F., History of Art: The Western Tradition (6th ed. 2003).
[6] Tomb robbery was already a problem at the height of Egyptian civilisation, showing that not everybody at the time took the Pharaoh’s divine nature, or the curses laid upon anyone disturbing their tombs, very seriously. Tomb robbery may have been committed by unpaid tomb workers, or even by pharaohs hungry for gold to recycle.
[7] Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt (2008).
[8] Nonetheless we do know some names. The famous bust of Nefertiti was probably the work of a sculptor called Thutmose, whose workshop was found at Amarna. The multi-talented Imhotep (2650–2600 BCE), whose most imposing work was the step pyramid of Djoser, may be the first architect known to us by name. Many names of architects were recorded not to immortalise the artist but simply because they were high-ranking figures mentioned in tomb inscriptions, etc.
[9] At the time the city was called Akhetaten, and became known as Amarna in the later Arabic period.


Max Clark said...

Didn't get to read all of it, sorry; but what interested me is your analysis of individuation in art. Greek drama, in its progression from chorus, to monologue, to dialogue, is often held out (by figures like Hegel and even Raymond Williams) as exemplary in this regard. My readings of Ananda Coomaraswamy give the impression however that even into the feudal periods of world culture the graphic arts lacked the "signature", as it were (quite "literally"), of individuality. Thus I would, as a friend, question your statement regarding 'breakthroughs of individuality' in Middle Kingdom "art" -- at least some further evidence could be summoned to substantiate this. Quite an amazing argument could indeed be coalesced around the "outbreak of the individual" in pre-Grecian art. It would cut hard against Orientalism and that whole bit. Also, tangentially, what was the Egyptian hieroglyphic for "art"; did they have one? In ancient Greek "art" translates as "techne", which gives a decidedly different understanding than our English word.

Eugene Hirschfeld said...

Thanks Max for the comment. I quite agree about the importance of individualism in Greek art. Perhaps "breakthrough" suggests something stronger than I intended. What we see in the Middle Kingdom isn't comparable to ancient Greece, rather traces of an interesting shift. I mentioned the "worldweary" expressions that creep into pharaonic portraits at this time: this is a humanising, individualising dent in the image of the eternal and confident ruler. I would argue this follows from the experience of falling productivity, disputed succession and civil war in the century after the Old Kingdom, i.e. when the absolute power of the pharaoh had been weakened. I would claim no more than this for individualism in the period.

The Egyptians did not have a word or hieroglyph for "art" as we understand it. They had words for the various forms of art - "stela", "statue" and so on - but their conception was nearer to what we call "craft". This doesn't mean of course that they didn't take aesthetics seriously, as the work proves. Our concept of "art" - e.g. it is the uniquely aesthetic creation of inspired individuals - is a bourgeois one and only a couple of centuries old.

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