Inspired by E.H. Gombrich
Egyptian painting challenges us to understand two things. The first thing has to do with their style of painting, while the second, to its survival.
Regarding the style, we must first understand that the scenes depicted in an Egyptian painting shows us a world, a time completely alien to ours. Many times we find ourselves baffled by Egyptian art. Put aside the surreal representations of gods or mythical scenes. Take a lot at the representations of scenes of everyday life, with human beings: the figures, extremely simplified in impossible positions, are striking as the arbitrary and capricious elements that complete their compositions.
But even more curious is the fact that this style of painting has survived, with minor variations, for over 2000 years. Remember that European painting in just 700 years went through countless artistic movements. Although the comparison is not valid because those are two completely different historical periods, we can say that definitely Egyptian painting remained unchanged because it fulfilled its purpose.
Why then the Egyptians painted like that?
The Egyptians wanted its painting show exactly what they wanted to represent, in a clear, obvious fashion. A good painting for them was a painting in which the observer could understand exactly what was going on. There was no room for ambiguity or interpretation. The main objective was to be understandable to everyone. Consider, for example, traffic signs: represent what they mean in the simplest possible way. It is for this reason that, like the traffic signs, Egyptian painting is flat and two-dimensional. Although in the future, the three-dimensionality, depth and perspective will show an “evolution” in the representation of reality, this complexity was contrary to the Egyptian artistic intention. And for this reason their style remained unchanged for so long.
Note, for example, the painting attached to this post. It is one detail of the many frescoes found in a tomb near Luxor that belonged to an Egyptian official called Nakht. Let’s look at it in detail. We will see that Nakht and his wife are making an offering to a god. In the left half, the characters are placed one behind the other. In the right half, the elements constituting the offering: in the upper area we can identify vessels, eggs, poultry, vegetables and other items. In the area below, we can see different cuts of meat and the remains of a cow or ox.
Each element of the painting is represented clearly. Here neither depth nor perspective play any role. Not even the physical laws, such as gravity, do. It is even very easy to identify each of the foods offered to this god. This fresco, rather than a representation of reality, seems to be a pictorial description.
The figures, as we mentioned, may look strange. The heads looking to the side, the torsos to the front, and the legs also to the side: no human being can adopt this position. But this way of painting is not random. From the Egyptian perspective, the heads are more identifiable if shown sideways, while the torsos and eyes are more identifiable to the front. The torsos to the front allowed them to show how the arms and legs were attached to the body. There is even a curious detail: if you look at Nakht’s feet, they appear to be both left feet. This shows that the Egyptians thought that, if they draw the big toes towards us, the feet would be clearer, whatever that means. By observing other Egyptian paintings, you can see that, depending on where the character is facing, it may have both right or left feet, but always with the big toe facing the viewer.
Egyptian artists were artisans were considered a little more valuable than construction workers and, therefore, the idea of expressing their subjectivity into their art was absolutely foreign to them. In fact, the artists had to memorize all the resources described above before being commended with a painting. With this knowledge, they only had to replicate the exact same rules in each of their paintings, and the job was done.
This is the logic behind a style of painting that, whether we like it or not, has survived for millennia. And in doing so, it has fulfilled another of its purposes: to be eternal.
Article originally published in CRAC Magazine