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The ancient Egyptians had no word that was an equivalent for “visual art,” though they clearly created many objects that modern people recognize as art. In the modern world, art is the product of an individual’s creative expression. But this view of art is bound to modern, Western culture. An ancient Egyptian artist would not have understood the value of individual originality. For the Egyptian artist, the creator god Ptah had ordained the proper form for representing the world in both two- and three-dimensional art. According to Egyptian myth, these forms had existed since the time that Ptah created everything in the world at the beginning of time. The artist’s task was to approximate Ptah’s pre-ordained pattern as closely as possible. Egyptian artists could be creative within the confines of the patterns that Ptah had created, but the patterns could not be ignored. Thus the basic representation of a man in two dimensions could not change. But within the basic pattern there was room for artists to exercise creativity in the details.


Egyptian art mirrors an idealized vision of nature. The art was more or less naturalistic in different periods of Egyptian history, but this naturalism was always restrained within a certain idealism and stylization. The most common Egyptian subject is humanity and all of its activities. Though modern audiences tend to think of colossal Egyptian sculpture as the norm, most statues were rather small. They were usually less than life-size. Relief sculpture of people was usually about twelve to eighteen inches tall (30.4 to 45.7 centimeters). Humanity almost always exists in Egyptian art in an ordered and rational universe. This order is especially apparent in the common scenes of family groups, religious rites, and even in daily activities. Though historical scenes sometimes included the chaos of battle, these scenes are meant to stand in contrast to the orderly, idealized world that the Egyptians believed was governed by maat (“correct order”).


The Egyptians viewed the world as a box. The natural world had two axes: the Nile, which ran from south to north, and the sun, which ran the axis from east to west. The sky itself was a canopy supported by poles at either side. The earth was a flat floor beneath the canopy. Egyptians reproduced this worldview in two-dimensional painting and relief. The artist composed scenes in rectangular registers with a clear base on which humans stood and a clear dividing line between what was above and below them.


The Egyptian artist had no interest in capturing a transitory moment as did classical Greek and Roman artists. The Egyptian artist aimed to capture an eternal and idealized vision of humans that would be valid for all time. Especially in portraiture, the Egyptian artist tried to create a static world. The artists had no interest in depicting motion or emotion as the important elements in a composition. Though a particular pose might signal walking or even running, Egyptian artists had no interest in depicting the illusion of movement in visual art.


The pattern that the Egyptians believed that Ptah had created for two-dimensional art integrated more than one view of each object or person. In an Egyptian architectural drawing, the building could be represented as a façade or front view with the plan view attached above it. A hieroglyphic label in the middle of the plan could then identify the specific building that the artist intended to represent. When artists represented people, a similar system for integrating views was nearly always followed. The head was in profile, but the whole eye was visible. This defied visual reality; it would be impossible in life. Both shoulders were visible as if the artist drew from the front, but the torso twisted unnaturally so that a side view of the hips and legs was visible. This representation was a symbol of a man, not an attempt to present visual reality. This style of drawing relates art to hieroglyphs. Each drawing, just as was true for each hieroglyph, was an easily recognizable symbol of the object that the artist wanted to represent. The shapes of most objects in Egyptian drawing also closely resemble the hieroglyph used for writing the word for that object in Egyptian. Perhaps the same need for clear outlines to make hieroglyphs instantly recognizable influenced artists to standardize the outline of most types of figures. This standard outline allows the viewer to “read” a drawing in the sense that each outline symbolizes something already defined in advance. The artist’s dependence on a pre-ordained outline for figures and objects led to a stable iconography or symbolic representation. For example, a child nearly always posed with a forefinger to the mouth, the tongue extended, and wore a side lock of hair. These three features instantly identified the figure as a child, no matter how big or small the figure was in relation to the other figures around him or her. Egyptian artists extensively used conventions like this for particular classes of people and objects. Each drawing represented a type. Men were always either very slender or extremely corpulent. These two variations represented youthful vigor or a later stage of maturity and wealth. Women were nearly always represented as slender and elegant. These women were thus young and fertile. Artists also exaggerated foreigners’ ethnic characteristics, showing the ways that they differed from the typical Egyptian. Artists often drew workers with more naturalism, showing deformities and age.


The Egyptian work of art often functioned similarly to hieroglyphs. Labels in hieroglyphs often specified the person’s name or the particular type of object that the artist had represented. These labels clarify not just that the artist had drawn a man, but which particular man the artist intended to show by including his name. The image itself often acts as the final hieroglyph in the writing of a word, just as each hieroglyphic word has a final sign that places the work in a class of objects. The image is integral to the writing.


Many commentators stress a connection in Egypt between sympathetic magic and artistic representation. Sympathetic magic postulates that an image can hold the power of the object it represents. Yet the Egyptians never wrote their thoughts on this subject. Modern scholars have found clues pointing to the idea that the Egyptians believed that images could possess powers. One of the best clues is the occasional tendency to draw the snake that represents the letter “f” in hieroglyphs with a break in the middle of its body or a knife stuck in its back when it is needed to write a word in a tomb or on a coffin. Scholars explain this break as a means to prevent the snake from having hostile power. Ancient defacing of works of art, especially the eyes and noses of figures, also suggests that ancient enemies attempted to control the powers of the deceased by destroying significant portions of the deceased’s face.


Only a few artists from ancient Egypt are known by name. Signatures were rare. Yet the hierarchy of the artists can be deduced by titles preserved in Egyptian documents and in relief scenes that depict artists’ workshops. These scenes often depict a supervisor who perhaps was the overall designer for a project. Possibly the High Priest of Ptah served as the master craftsman for the king in the Old Kingdom (2675–2170 B.C.E. ). A younger royal son often held this office. Other titles such as “Master of the King’s Works” and “Chief of Sculptors” suggest that Egyptian society organized artists in a very hierarchical manner. Such organizations were common in nearly every aspect of life. In the New Kingdom (1538–1075 B.C.E. ) even more information on the social structure of the royal artists at the Valley of the Kings is preserved. The men who decorated the royal tombs were divided into two crews, each with its own leadership. In theory, at least, each crew was responsible for decorating one side of the tomb.


Most artists worked directly for an institution. Scholars assume that the royal workshop could command the best artists. Others worked for the temples or perhaps for the households of individual officials. The artists thus worked under the supervision of royal or upper-class managers for the palace, the temple, or an official. The artist’s profession often passed from father to son. The methods employed seem to change very little over 3,000 years, but it is clear that the carving tools improved from the original copper chisels in the Old Kingdom, to the bronze chisels in the New Kingdom, and finally the iron tools made in the Late Period (664 B.C.E. and later).


Managers divided individual art projects into stages that specialists executed, at least in the ideal. Whether actual work proceeded in an organized fashion is difficult to demonstrate from the unfinished tomb walls that are the only modern evidence for the process. After masons smoothed the wall surface of a tomb or temple, outline artists sketched the scene in black ink. The chief designers made red corrections. Sculptors then carved the scene, following the guidelines made in the drawing. Plaster workers then prepared the surface with a thin coat of plaster, following the outline of the carved relief. The plaster provided a surface for painters who applied the color. In three-dimensional sculpture there might also be a goldsmith who added gilding or a lapidary who added inlay of semi-precious stones, often for the eyes of a statue.


Egyptian artists worked with materials naturally available in Egypt and with imported wood and stone. The quintessential Egyptian material seems to be stone because it is best preserved from antiquity. But it is important to remember that wood and metal were just as important to the artist in Egypt, even though fewer such objects have survived. Wood is clearly more fragile than stone while precious metals were often melted and reused in antiquity.


Egyptian artists worked in both hard and soft stones. In addition to easily available limestone granite and basalt, Egyptian artists used slightly morerare hard stone materials such as diorite, quartzite, grey-wacke, and Egyptian alabaster, a form of calcite. The sculptor heated the surface of the stone before working. The heat allowed artists to use the flint drill effectively on the hard surface. In the Late Period with the introduction of iron punches, artists could pulverize the surface of hard stone, then shape and smooth it with other stones. The pulverized surface could be polished with quartzite sand. There are also documented cases where an element could be added or perhaps reattached with dowels if it broke. The two most widely used soft stones were sandstone and limestone, which was widely available in the area near Memphis. The most famous limestone quarry was at Tura, east of modern Cairo. Limestone was the whitest and considered the best for building. It is relatively easy to cut in blocks from the quarry bed. The blocks could then serve as the starting point for sculpture. It appears likely that many sculptors’ workshops were located near to the quarry to at least allow the sculptor to shape a sculpture roughly before moving it closer to its final destination. This practice made it unnecessary to transport any heavier blocks than necessary.


Artists used wood for statues, decorative panels, doors, and shrines. They executed the initial rough work with saws and axes. An adze (cutting tool) and chisel could be used to shape the statue. Artists would often smooth wood surfaces with abrasives before and after they were done sculpting. But much of the surface of a wooden statue was covered with plaster and then the artists applied color. Wood sculptures often reached the highest quality because the materials were imported and expensive. Only the best artists were trusted with these precious materials. Cedar came from Lebanon and ebony from Somalia beginning in the earliest periods. Native acacia and sycamore fig could sometimes be pieced together to form the surface of cheaper statues. Neither of these local Egyptian woods were as good for sculpture as the imported cedar and ebony. However, the addition of plaster and paint often disguised the poor quality of the native wood.


The Egyptians also created metal statues from copper and bronze. There are two known examples of royal hammered copper statues from the Sixth Dynasty and one royal example from the Twelfth Dynasty. Others must have existed but did not survive. But caste bronze was by far the more common metal statue type. Thousands of caste bronze statues have been preserved from ancient Egypt. Egyptian artists had invented the lost wax method for casting by the Old Kingdom. They demonstrated great skill in nearly every period. First the artist created a model in bee’s wax. He then covered the model with clay and left holes open. The clay and wax were heated until the wax melted and ran out the holes and the clay hardened. Bronze, silver, or gold could then be heated until it was a liquid and poured through the holes in the clay which was now a mould or negative image of the bee’s wax model. The clay mould could be removed carefully for reuse. The metal sculpture was usually polished as part of its final preparation.


Grids are a system of horizontal and vertical lines dividing a work of art into regular units. Egyptian artists used grids to create sculpture in two and three dimensions. After the mason had smoothed the stone surface, the artist could apply the grid with a taut piece of string dipped in paint or chalk dust. The grid divided the stone into equally spaced units. In different periods, the proportions of units used for the head, torso, and legs changed, creating differing body proportions. The outline artist worked from the grid, knowing the number of units necessary for each body part. The grid allowed artists to keep the various parts of the body in proportion and to enlarge images over vast areas of wall space.


Egyptian artists worked in both sunk relief and raised relief. In sunk relief the artist chiseled an outline into the stone and modeled a surface that lay beneath the surface of the stone. In raised relief, the background was carved away leaving a modeled subject raised above the surface of the stone. The Egyptians preferred sunk relief in strong sunlight. With sunk relief, the sun could not create as many shadows as in raised relief. Sunk relief provided a sharper image in bright sun. Raised relief, which requires greater skill to execute, generally was used for interiors. Here low light could emphasize the sculptural forms by allowing them to cast shadows. The Egyptians plastered and painted both raised and sunk relief. They could also use plaster to repair the surface of a tomb or temple wall and occasionally modeled features from plaster.


Egyptian artists used a variety of colors including yellow, red, brown, white, blue, and green. The earth tones were made from natural pigments tinted with white. Blue came from a copper-based frit or from copper calcium tetra-silicate. Yellow and blue combined to make green. All colors were mixed in water-soluble gum. Artists applied color with almost no shading, only flat areas of color. Most objects were colored naturally. Herbage was green; mud was black. Water was blue; linen garments were white. When the Egyptians added color to human flesh, however, symbolism often dominated. Though Egyptian men and women must have had similar flesh tones, men are often painted red while women are painted yellow. The red associates men with the sun-god Re. The yellow associates women with the goddesses who had gold skin. Foreigners such as Nubians had black skin while Asiatics from the modern Middle East had yellow skin. In the New Kingdom artists experimented with different background colors. In the early Eighteenth Dynasty they used light gray and occasionally yellow backgrounds. Later in the Eighteenth Dynasty (1550–1295 B.C.E. ) the backgrounds were white. Ramesside artists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties used yellow backgrounds primarily.

Overviews of Selected Applications of Photography [next] [back] Overview of Theater - EXISTENCE OF THEATER., THE STUDY OF EGYPTIAN THEATER., REDEFINING THEATER.

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