What are the meanings behind the first rules of art?
The style and painting in Egyptian society 3,000 years ago is well known. Strangely contorted bodies specifically designed to show off a person’s best attributes and landscapes or events drawn as if seen from all angles at once.
This particular viewpoint was one of art with a purpose, magical art, which endured in Egypt for over a thousand years.
It was linked to their religious beliefs in life after death, and so in order to make it to the afterlife, you needed to preserve your image on earth. Hence mummification, but also the rules governing painting and especially the painting of people.
Egyptian figure painting
If you study figures from tomb paintings and reliefs you will see that the head is always in profile, the torso is twisted to show off the chest, arms hinged at the shoulders and the waist rotated sideways. The feet are also captured in a strange way, seen from the inside, always showing both big toes together. As if the person had two left feet.
This rather Cubist way of painting the figure was governed by a series of rules laid down centuries before and ahead of the Greek’s discovery of foreshortening.
The same all around view is used when looking at the landscape, ponds are seen from above with birds and fish both on and under the water in the same picture. Trees are drawn all around the edges, as if chopped down and neatly lined up. All aspects of the landscape are possible at the same time.
Here again the idea was to illustrate the perfect view of the dead persons world. All things depicted in an established formula, showing the world off to its best. The gods and pharaohs were big, while the man on the street was drawn small, the little people.
Telling the story
Events were documented accurately too. They were comic strip representations of the process, whether it was bringing in the corn, making wine or fighting a battle. The artist drew all parts of the event in one panel, showing precisely what went on. Hunting trips show the pharaoh hiding in the bushes, stalking his prey, making the kill and taking the catch home. Understanding the visual narrative is key to reading an Egyptian painting.
Paint like an Egyptian
I like the Egyptian painters idea of seeing things from all points simultaneously. I think that we all consciously edit our reality to create the perfect version of a scene. The Egyptian painters perfectly illustrate this theory. Think of your favourite destination and I guarantee you’ll edit out the things you don’t like or that you feel inappropriate.
Nothing is ever completely new in art. Just as the Cubists were seen as innovative in their own way, the Egyptians were possibly the originators of this concept of looking at the world through different glasses.
And just because I know you’ve been humming it while you read this post here are the Bangles. Walk like an Egyptian.