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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Egyptian Art

Copyright, Jim Lane
The Pyramids of Giza, mostly just
a good place to get your picture
taken among the buses.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Egyptian Excursion, 2010, Jim Lane,
Acrylic on papyrus. Do you have to be
Egyptian to paint Egyptian art?
With all the turmoil in Egypt so much in the news these days, and having spent a couple days in that country in 2010, it seems fitting to me to delve into the art of the Nile River basin. It is with a great deal of foreboding that I do so. Once you get past King Tut, the pyramids, Nefertiti, and the many statues of Ramses II, Egyptian art becomes mind-boggling complex. For one thing, there's so MUCH of it, stretching back nearly five thousand years. Likewise, a great deal is known about Egyptian art thanks to two factors--the preservative qualities of the desert environment and the early utilization of papyrus in art production. Add to this the fact that much of what we know about Egyptian art is literally engraved in stone, which tends to be a pretty archival substance. The other problems involved in studying Egyptian art is that we have learned to read hieroglyphics and are thus familiar with the very long and convoluted history of that country's culture. For anyone tackling Egypt's contribution to the world art culture, the difficulty seems to come down to TMI--too much information.
Memi and Sabu, 2575-2465 BC,
Fourth Dynasty, likely husband and
wife and friends of the pharaoh.
Egyptologists have tried to simplify all this by dividing the history of Egypt into various periods--the Old Kingdom (left), the New Kingdom (below, right), the Third Intermediate Kingdom, Roman Egypt, etc. Does it help? Frankly, not much. Beyond that they speak of ruling dynasties, which are at least numbered, but once more, there are so many of them. I'd have to say that, without a doubt, Egyptian art history constitutes the most difficult area of study in the history of art history (rivaled closely by Greek art). Yet, as much as we might like to ignore such complex studies, we can't just go along pretending it all didn't happen. I can't count the number of times, in dealing with other topics, that I've had to refer back to Egyptian art as having provided an important input into the development of our world art culture.
Khonsu's outer and inner coffins,
painted gesso on wood, 1279-1213 BC.
New Kingdom, 19th Dynasty.
There are three basic themes in Egyptian art (1.) Life after death, (2.) Pharaoh Glorification, and (3.) Everyday Life on the Banks of the Nile (what we might term genre art). The earliest of these is the first one, the whole, elongated study of tomb art (right) which stretches for the first 2,500 years pretty much up through the birth of Christ. The vain-glorious monumental statues of pharaoh after pharaoh among Egyptian architectural ruins make up the second. The third area, Egyptian genre art, to me seems the most interesting and most neglected. I'm far more fascinated by how the (to use a recent phrase) lower ninety-eight percent lived than the top two percent.

Osiris here weighs the heart of the deceased (figure on left, nearest the scales) and finds
her worthy to enter the afterlife. Virtually every detail here is known, which makes this
scene from "The Book of the Dead" as interesting as it is exasperatingly complex. This
work is from the Third Intermediate Period, 21st Dynasty.
No discourse on Egyptian art would be complete without mentioning the "Book of the Dead." As seen above, the art is typical of what we think of as the Egyptian formula, faces shown in profile, bodies drawn at an angle. The "Book of the Dead" did not exist in a single scroll but has been compiled from multiple sources such as that above and from tomb walls. It consisted largely of "spells" designed to aid those passing from this world to the next and dates primarily from the intermediate period, the eleventh to the seventh centuries BC. However, it was still in use as late as 50 BC.

Everyday life along the Nile, when appearing in Egyptian tombs, very often dealt with
either hunting or farming, as seen above in these images from the Old Kingdom period roughly 4,500 years ago.
Virtually all of what I termed Egyptian genre painting derives from the walls of the hundreds of tombs recovered during the past few centuries from the sands and preservation of the dry, desert heat. As a result, we know much more regarding Egyptian life, culture, history and artistic development than any other civilization in pre-Christian history. However, Egyptian art and culture did not end when Octavian invaded the country following the defeat of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony at Actium in 30 BC. Egyptian art did, however, become "Romanized," losing much of his formulaic past in favor of Latin realism. In effect, it became "modernized."

The Library of Alexandria, 2002, its main reading room can handle 2000 visitors.
The history of the Egypt during the Christian and Islamic eras is as tormented and complex as it's many periods and dynasties earlier; but, even today, there continues to be a distinctively Egyptian quality to its modern art, as seen in the architecture of its modern-day Library of Alexandria. Designed in the shape of a flattened cylinder tilted toward the sea, the structure is as modern and functional as any to be found. With its massive skylight and eleven different levels, the new Library of Alexandria attempts to replicate in function, if not in form, the storehouse of art, and knowledge of the original, destroyed by fire around 30 BC. Let's hope, with all the violence besetting Egypt today, this one doesn't suffer the same fate.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Interior of the Library of Alexandria is shaped somewhat like a terraced
amphitheater with two museums, gift shops, and more than a million
volumes comprising three major languages in its collection.


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