Excerpt from Chapter 1
Principles of Flat Figuration in Ancient Egypt
From the time of its earliest manifestations, Egyptian art responded to the precise need to describe the surrounding environment through its reduction to essential elements. This aspiration was fundamental to two tendenciesnaturalism and abstractionthat determined the figurative production of Pharaonic culture throughout its more than three thousand years of history, and within which it is possible to locate every artifact, from the vastest temple building to the simplest vase. The process of simplifying reality implies the formation of a series of conventions that, by means of the strong conceptualization of the sign, attributes high semantic value to the art produced in the Nile Valley. For this reason, every monument is valid for what it represents, but also for what it symbolizes, and it exists within a series of cultural references that entail a reading and interpretation that go beyond immediate aesthetic enjoyment. Sometimes it is the artist who charges the work with further meanings; in other cases it is the form that is a source of inspiration and lends itself to adaptations and manipulations that give it value from a semantic viewpoint beyond its function.
This second approach seems evident in the treatment of columns, where the capitals are conceived to reproduce plant elements. The hypostyle hall of a temple is transformed into a garden with palms, or into a field with papyrus plants. If, in the first case, the transposition has the value only of attributing greater decorative impact to the building, in the second case the process lends itself to additional interpretations that relate to the realm of the sacred. The papyrus is a symbol of rebirth par excellence, a concept that can be seen in the prerogatives generally attributed to every Egyptian deity. The vast expansion of the dimensions of the plants, in setting them in stone, has the effect of subverting the objective data; people who find themselves wandering among the columns with the papyrus flower capitals experience a sense of dislocation caused when natural proportions are upset. A similar feeling heightens the fear that every human being must experience in the presence of god and thus fits perfectly into the context of a sacred building. One of the successful examples of this effect can be seen in the large hypostyle hall of the temple of Amon-Ra in Karnak, where the columns are so densely crowded that they provoke a sense of confusion, creating an insurmountable distance between the smallness of human nature and the manifestation of the divine. In the central nave the capitals reproduce an open papyrus flower, while in the side naves the flower is closed. This difference, in addition to signaling the path followed by the god, whose life-giving force causes the buds to open, also acts to create a notable theatrical effect. The edges of the open flowers, turned inside out, hide the supporting dado of the architraves, which thus seem to be suspended in space, further increasing the feeling of dislocation. The inspirational motif for Egyptian statuary, however, is different. Here, every sculpture is conceived not so much as a reproduction of the depicted subject but rather as its substitute (naturalism). But the creation of every statue is subjected to a conceptual process (abstraction) that determines different choices in the representation of the individual, depending on the role played in society. Consequently the tendency to portraiture, present in Pharaonic art from its inception, found complete expression only during a rather late period and was probably encouraged by cultural influences from outside Egyptian culture.
Thus three typologies of representation can be delineated within Pharaonic statuary production, corresponding to a tripartition in society. Indeed, different concepts underlie the creation of male and female statuary and effigies of the sovereign.
The depiction of the monarch is based on the purest essence of Pharaonic regal dogma, whereby the throne of Egypt was occupied by a series of individuals, all personifications of Horus, the falcon god, hypostasis of the sun. After death the sovereign was transformed into Osiris, and his place was taken by a new Horus. This concept received mythical elaboration in the story of Osiris; the god was said to have reigned on earth until he was killed through a ruse devised by his wicked brother Seth. Once Horus, who was born from the posthumous union of Isis with Osiris, reached adulthood, he claimed his father’s throne, following a long, bitter struggle with his uncle. The myth, attested to in various versions, is fundamental for Egyptian culture and justifies the legitimacy of royalty, and states the basic principle upon which the Pharaonic regime is founded. All existence is described as a perennial struggle between order (Osiris, Horus) and chaos (Seth), between good and evil, with the presence of a single sovereign as a solution. It is quite likely that the legendary tale emerged in an era subsequent to the foundation of the unified Egyptian state, but the royal three-dimensional depiction clearly expresses these concepts going back to the most ancient examples. Statues of the sovereigns do not portray a specific individual, but concretize the very essence of Pharaonic royalty. For this reason the monarch is always represented with a youthful body and features, indicating his capacity to govern. Variations on this theme and departures from the stereotype indicate concepts of monarchic dogma that differ from tradition, or that are dictated by evident deviations from the norm. This attitude is reflected above all in the treatment of facial features, with results that often can be mistaken as portrait like intentions, but that are almost totally absent in depictions of the sovereign.
The existence of the monarch is a justification and measure of the entire Egyptian universe, and the way he is depicted of course influences how the world surrounding him is represented. The most clarifying example of this concept is seen in the statuary groups discovered inside the funerary temple of Menkaure (Mycerinus) (2490-2472 BC), where the monarch’s features are repeated, with necessary adjustments determined by sex, on the faces of his spouse (dyad; Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 11.1738) and those of the deities that accompany him (triad; Cairo, Egyptian Museum, JE 40679). This propensity, however, is common to all periods of Egyptian history; the sunken and anguished features of Senwosret (Sesostris) III and Amenemhat III are also reflected in other sculptures from the same era, while the irritated features of Akhenaten influence depictions of his spouse Nefertiti and his six daughters, and, to a lesser degree, those of his subjects. Representations of both women and sovereigns do not aspire to individuality, but tend to emphasize the cultural essence of the subject. Thus female features are rarely individualized and tend toward an abstract beauty, subject to variations dictated by the taste and style of the era. Only on specific occasions, as in the case of Queen Tiye (for example, the wooden portrait head in Berlin’s Agyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, not shown) and, in general, all women of the Amarna period, one can speak of an attempt at portraiture that, however, never fully succeeds in freeing itself from a strong aesthetic component. It is difficult to find a female figure in Egyptian art that is not clearly attractive. Despite the somewhat excessive fullness of the forms, not even the statuettes of servant girls grinding grain to prepare bread and beer are disagreeable. Representations of women focus above all on their reproductive capacities, and the statuary tends to enhance sexual attributes, thus capturing the female image in a play of eternal attraction. Fullness of forms is stressed in every era, but parameters of beauty change over time and, along with clothing and jewelry, are knowingly utilized as arms of seduction. The Old Kingdom woman is plump and her full figure is an explicit and immediate reference to the possibility of procreation. Adapting to the art style of the time, the female body in Middle Kingdom representations becomes long-limbed and the proportions more graceful and elegant (headless female statuette, Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 14697). In the New Kingdom, female appeal is based on more abstract canons (with the exception of the Amarna period, when the forms are once again characterized by fullness), shown off above all through a type of clothing that, rather than covering, allows glimpses of the body. This fashion continues over subsequent eras, when garments are even more clinging and emphasize forms that become increasingly generous. This tendency reaches its apex in the Ptolemaic Period, when the modeling of the female body is assertively ample.
The portrayal of woman, which changed according to the taste and fashion of the times, always refers to her seductive and reproductive powers, taking into consideration her role in society and capturing her image in a cultural stereotype that remains nearly unchanged over the course of three thousand years of history.
Private male statuary, while always influenced by the iconography of the ruling monarch, follows a more naturalistic tendency in certain eras. This propensity finds vivid expression in the portrayals of high state officials who lived between the Third and the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty (26th century BC), and is documented by numerous works of sculpture. The faces of powerful officials are quite descriptive and show distinctive physiognomic features of the subject who is depicted. The statue of Hemiunu (Hildesheim, Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum) shows a corpulent man with a triangular face, eyes close together, a long nose, and a small mouth. The face is that of a man in full maturity, and his stoutness, which normally indicates the degree of affluence that has been attained, finds correspondence in the remains of tomb reliefs, demonstrating that this is not a case of pure convention. This is the historical context for the so-called reserve heads discovered in certain tombs in the Giza necropolis. These works have been interpreted in various ways, but it seems quite plausible that they were utilized by artists involved in the decoration of the tomb as models to be followed in depictions of the owner. The pronounced nose and prominent upper lip of the reserve head” of Nofer (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 06.1886) are precisely comparable to a bas-relief depiction of this official (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 07.1002). It is quite likely that the sculptures were used until work was concluded and then were abandoned on the site and ended up amid the detritus. This does not preclude their possible reuse, in certain cases, for secondary and ritual purposes. The tendency toward portraiture seen in male statuary during the Fourth Dynasty also appears in other eras of Pharaonic history, showing how the portrayal of the Egyptian man tends, when possible, to be individualistic (naturalistic). This attitude is diametrically opposed to what is seen in representations of both the sovereign and women, which are idealized and thus tend toward abstraction.
Tripartition in sculpture derives directly from the way that statuary was understood by ancient Egyptians; it was seen as a perfect replacement for the individual and thus reflected the role that individual held in society. Differences are achieved through gradations in the concept of identity. Thus the phrase This is the sovereign” (a definite and a generic identity) can be made to correspond to the statue of the sovereign; This is a woman” (an indefinite and a generic identity) can correspond to a statue of a woman; and This is X” (definite and precise identity) can correspond to a statue of a man. The taxonomy is not complete unless one takes into consideration effigies of the deity, whose elaboration represents the purest degree of abstraction. Every divine statue responds to the demands of an ideal iconography, canonized in the early eras of Pharaonic history. Unlike sovereignty, which is unique, divinity assumes multiple forms and the statuary takes this into account, immediately making its various manifestations recognizable through specific attributes or, in the case of female deities, placing on the head hieroglyphic signs that correspond to the name. In the portrayal of a god, there is the same degree of defined and general identity as with the sovereign, with a characteristic note meant to indicate a precise entity within the context of a variegated and theoretically infinite divine universe: This is the god/goddess X” (defined and generic identity + characterization).
The gradation of the various states of existence in relation to society is less easily perceived in two-dimensional art, where the narrative aspect prevails over the descriptive. Although one can speak of naturalistic rendering in flat figuration in specific periods of Egyptian art, the level of abstraction always remains very high and achieves its apex above all in temple decoration. In religious settings, the focus is on the enunciation of the relationship between the sovereign and the god, and so both subjects and representational choices are governed by a tradition that leads to the constant repetition of forms, outside any specific context. In tomb decoration, instead, there is room for exceptions, as in the aforementioned tombs of the Third and Fourth Dynasties, where images of the owner are based on a certain individualism. As a rule, however, figuration should be considered more stereotypical than a precise reproduction of a royal subject. This is the case with the figures that populate country scenes, which sometimes seem clearly differentiated. Such deviations can already be seen in the Old Kingdom, when shepherds and farmers often share a premature baldness. The tombs of El-Bersha, instead, depict them as gaunt and shabby, while the Theban tombs of the New Kingdom frequently indulge in caricature, as in the case of the worker whose body is covered in thick, unappealing hair, in a fragment of tomb decoration now in Berlin (Agyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, 18539). This extremely vivid image might lead one to believe that the artist had wanted to depict a real person, but instead, it should be understood that the rendering derives from an intention to reproduce not a specific individual, but rather the generic and caricatural image of a farmer. The opposite is seen in a figure with a stick, sitting on a low stool, asleep in the shade of a tree. In this case the artist wanted to depict a very specific person, probably with the intention of making fun of him; to identify him, however, he has not resorted to personalization through the painting, but has written out his name (Penruiu) above the image.
To transport reality into a two-dimensional space, Egyptian art relies on certain conventions that rest upon a strong process of abstraction. Thus the human figure is disassembled into its constituent parts, reproduced depending on the point of view that makes it most recognizable. This is achieved through a compromise between a frontal view (eyes, ears, and chest) and a lateral view (head, pelvis, and limbs). This approach can quite justifiably be considered cubist,” because it takes into account the possibility of the subject’s movement; the view of the whole is obtained through the synchronic fusion of successive phases of its movement. Confirmation is verified by the reproduction of statues whose immobility is revealed by the full profile chosen for the representation of the torso.
In the case of objects or buildings, the transposition from three to two dimensions occurs through a process of perspectival flattening, whereby what is found inside is normally represented on top. One of the oldest demonstrations of this figurative mode can be seen in the serekh, the typical means of transcribing the Horus name of the sovereign (stela of Djet, Paris, Musée du Louvre, E 11007). It depicts what was once erroneously considered the façade of the royal palace (lexicographic analysis of the term serekh also shows that it refers to a building and not to one of its parts), above which there is the image of a falcon (the god Horus). In fact, this is the two-dimensional transposition of the palace. The dominant figure indicates that Horus, or rather the reigning monarch, is inside. The rectangle between the falcon and the façade corresponds to the perimeter of the building and creates an empty space where the name of the sovereign can be inserted. As in every Egyptian work of art, this composition can also be subjected to a precise interpretation: The palace of Horus is occupied by X (name of the sovereign).”
Another classic example of perspectival flattening is the representation of the house of the deceased, which, beginning in the early years of the Old Kingdom, normally appears at the back of a tomb chapel, and that in this case, too, has been erroneously identified as a false door. The monument, in fact, reproduces an entrance, above which the deceased is depicted seated in front of a table full of food. The scene must be understood as if it were actually taking place within a dwelling. In the false door of Redines (Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 21.961a-c), the deceased is depicted in profile in the lower portion of the jambs, and in full frontal view (an anomaly for Egyptian art) in the door opening. The three images visually coexist with the one that portrays the deceased seated at a table, but they should all be understood conceptually, as if the scenes were taking place at different times. If one assumes that the monument is diachronic in nature, then Redines can be understood to be represented as if he were entering his house, sitting at the table that has been laid, then going out once again. Freedom of movement, transposed iconographically, is one of the most recurrent wishes directed toward the deceased. The false door develops two different perspectives. One is spatial (outside and inside), and one is temporal (three successive phases of a single action). According to this view, flat Egyptian figuration can be understood as a reduction of four, not three, dimensionsheight, width, depth, and timeto a single surface.