Egyptian Art

I hope that if any Egyptologist or person better-versed in ancient Egypt–specifically the Pharaonic period–comes by, forgiveness and mercy shall be granted me seeing as how I am a Classicist who has given up books for Lent and thus, any content (as opposed to opinion) will be derived from my memory.

I was thinking about mimetic art (that which attempts to portray nature/reality as closely as possible) versus non-mimetic art. While Egyptian art is clearly identifiable as of people in chariots, alligators, trees, etc, it does not reproduce these images exactly as nature had them. Most pharaohs look almost identical–the major exception being Akhenaten, father of Tutankhamen (compare that to this image of his mummified head) and who attempted a religious reform. It is simply not mimetic. And, although some art is less mimetic than other art due to “primitivity” and lack of skill, this cannot be said of Egyptian art.

Egyptian art is clearly done by highly skilled craftsmen who knew the human form–especially notable in the statues. The fact that all pharaohs look alike in the statuary is due to the fact that it is a highly traditional art form. I’ve a feeling that Akhenaten’s realistic statuary is part of the rebellion against the past–break with that which has gone before, demonstrate the newness of what is going on (this is probably part of the spiritualised form of Orthodox icons vs. the mimesis of Classical art–but most Orthodox people would deny it).

These statues are also a bit like Roman statues (the usual, not Akhenaten). When Octavian/Augustus becomes the sole ruler of the Roman Empire/Republic (he “restored” the Republic–Romans were traditionalists who hated kings), he purposefully models his image on that of Julius Caesar, the deified general, consul, dictator, and hero of the Roman people who happened also to be his great-uncle and adopted father. By modelling oneself upon the past, one legitimises one’s power. Thus, the Egyptian Pharaohs demonstrate themselves to be members of the previous successions of rulers, showing that they, too, are part of the great tradition of Rameses that brought Egypt to where it was. In a traditional culture, this is important.

Not that every pharaoh besides Akhenaten looks the same–they’re just all eerily similar. Compare Rameses II (12th c BC) with Amenhotep III (14th c BC). That’s how traditionalist this art is, my friends. It’s not that people couldn’t do anything else–I saw a potsherd on which a fairly “lifelike” drawing of a woman in a dress had been rendered by an artist of about Rameses’ day. But the form simply wouldn’t allow that sort of thing to make its way onto a wall.

All I have to say about those who think the Egyptians thought their wall-paintings were true-to-life is that such people are fools. The art was made to tell stories, mainly. As well as to produce propaganda–so the more important people are larger. As well, it is done so that the important bits of the people are all there, regardless of what real perspective would allow. This is important, I’d say. I actually once read a good article about Archaic Greek pottery art, specifically the Dipylon Master, and what this style shows about his worldview and culture. The Egyptians weren’t bad at looking, they just chose to see things differently for their portrayals.

This is all for now. Kali nikhta.


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