Egypitan Art- Formal Styles Essay, Research Paper
The first portion of this Art Survey I class deals with work ranging from the Paleolithic Age to the works of Ancient Egypt. The subject matter that is being depicted is a wide array of major concepts or issues of that particular time.
As art observers we try to really understand the art we are looking at. What does it represent? What is the meaning of it? Does it serve a purpose? To answer these questions we need to look at the iconographic elements as well as the formal conventions of each of the pieces.
Early on in the history of art it is virtually impossible to know the true meanings of certain pieces because there was no such thing as written records at that time. All we can do is gather up enough information of what we do know to be true to make the most valid assumptions as to the meanings of the work as we possibly can. However, once we are introduced to the Mesopotamian civilization things start to become much clearer. The reason behind this is that the Mesopotamians had invented a type of writing called cuneiform which was made by pressing a wedged stick into a soft surface to make symbols that represented different things. The Egyptians also had a type of writing called hieroglyphics. This is a series of pictures that tell stories. Cracking the codes of these ancient writings helped researchers today get a better understanding of what the artists truly meant to depict in their work.
Each of the pieces we have studied is done in mediums such as stone, clay, paint, etc. Using these popular items of the time the artists made such things as free -standing sculpture, relief-sculpture and wall paintings. Some examples that will be discussed later on in this essay are the wall painting of Queen Nefertari Making an Offering to Isis, the freestanding Votive Statue of Gudea, and the relief-sculpture called the Banquet Plaque.
This essay will discuss three works from each culture concerning each of the three most popular types of mediums used.
Starting off with ancient wall/tomb paintings, the scene of Queen Nefertari Making an Offering to Isis is a good example of iconographic elements and formal conventions. The hieroglyphics on the walls of the tomb show the queen asking the God, Isis, to accept her offerings. Nefertari is shown with her upper body facing the observer and her lower body in profile. The artist of this time though it was extremely important to show the headdress of Nefertari is a typical crown for an Egyptian Queen. It also has a sun disk in the center. Isis is wearing a horned crown with a sun disk in the center, which tells us who she is. This horned crown is also meant to bring happiness and protection in the afterlife. Isis is holding a long rod in her left hand. This is thought to be a symbol of power. She was also holding the ankh, which is the official symbol of life. Another aspect that is common in Egyptian art is the size of the subject being illustrated. The size of the subject usually indicated the status of the person being depicted. In this scene we see Isis is a bit smaller than Nefertari yet she is sitting on a throne. The throne is another symbol of greatness. The size of the person or their placement (such as a throne) indicates the importance of the individual.
The second piece I chose to examine was also involving a Queen. However, this piece is taken from the Amarna Period. This relief sculpture clearly depicts another scene in which the royal family is paying their respects to a god. In this case it was the god Aten. As seen in the Egyptian paintings and reliefs, the more important figure is larger. In this piece there are two princesses shown behind their mother who is extremely larger than they are. This relief is depicting a ceremony or a daily ritual done by the family, which was worship. Ceremonies and daily rituals were very common in that time when worship was so important. This is why they were so frequently carved on the walls of Amarna s buildings. The bodies of the women in this scene are done in profile. The once popular need to see the most important parts of the body was not as prevalent as in the Egyptian art. This art focused more on the act of worshiping. The women are wearing form-hugging clothes, which were typical of that era. Nefertiti is wearing a headdress, which was commonly worn by a queen of her time. The women are shown in motion; almost a standard in this type of art. Their hands are upraised showing their utmost respect for the god whom they are praising.
In the medium of sculpture I will first discuss the statue of Menkaure and his Wife. This Egyptian freestanding sculpture was made of stone and cut very close to the block, because the stone used to make the sculpture may break easily if it has too much negative space. The Egyptians wanted their work to withstand the tests of time. Like in the tomb paintings discussed before, Menkaure wore a false beard to show that he was a ruler. On his head he wore the nemes, which was a typical male headdress of rulers in that time. Menkaure was shown as young and healthy, exactly how he wanted to be seen in the afterlife. The rigid in-motion stance of the couple is typical for this era. Despite the common characteristics of Egyptian art this piece is quite uncommon for its time. Most noticeable is the fact that Menkaure s wife it almost the same size as him. In common Egyptian art, the ruler is significantly larger than any other common person, including his wife and family.
Another item that stands out is that Khamerernebty has her arm around him. It is very uncommon to be showing emotion in a piece such as this. Usually all sculptures show the subjects hands down at their sides, in an offering position, or a prayer-like clasp.
The Votive figure of Gudea represents the typical aspects found in Mesopotamian art. This statue, like Egyptian style statues, was cut close to the block. However, in the case of the Mesopotamians, the stone in which these statues were made was quite expensive so they used as much of the stone as they could, putting none to waste. Most sculpture of the time looked cylindrical. This was due to the fact that it was cut so close to the block. The purpose of this statue was to stand in the place of its owner and pray for them while they were busy doing other things. The statue would usually stand in the ziggurat in the temple of the god in which they wanted to pray for. The eyes of the statue were very large because they believed that the eyes were the mirrors of the soul. Along with the formal aspects of these statues came the iconographical aspects as well. Gudea has his hands clasped, which indicates that he is in some sort of prayer. Another meaning behind clasping the hands is social rank. The different ways that the hands are clasped is a sign of the persons standing in society. In this piece of work Gudea is wearing a broad brimmed hat. We can tell that he is an important person because royalty in Mesopotamia wore brimmed hats. Hairstyles also depicted the stature of a person. Priests had bald heads while others donned long extravagant hairstyles. Another commonality of almost every freestanding piece in this time is that it had some type of cuneiform written on it. In this particular piece, Gudea is trying to show his people that he is interested in a well-organized community. Finally the water flowing from the jar that Gudea is holding represents the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. These rivers flowing from the same point connected the two most important sources of life for the Mesopotamians.
Relief sculpture was an important type of expression for the Mesopotamians. An example of this would be The Banquet Plaque . Plaques in this era were used to lock the doors of important buildings. In this scene we see a celebration of some sort. In the top register the ruler and his wife are accepting gifts from the servants. You can tell the difference between the servants and the upper class by looking for who is seated. The rulers in this piece are seated waiting for the servants to bring them food and drinks. They are also portrayed as larger than the servants showing power or status. In the middle register there is a sacrifice of an animal going on. This was a common practice in Mesopotamian life and was seen abundantly in their art as well. In the bottom register there is a group of musicians playing instruments. Musicians and dancers were a sign of a celebration. The majority of the work of this time dealt with politics or religion. This piece was probably a depiction of a victory celebration or an offering to a god/gods.
The Egyptians used a different technique in making their relief art. It is called sunken relief. Instead of carving the background out, the Egyptians decided to cut the image into the stone. Not only was this a faster technique, it was also easier to see in different lighting and from different angles. A good example of this is the Trial Piece of Akhenaten. In this piece, the Egyptian interpretation of humans is beginning to change. The humans are being depicted more like lions. This is because lions were admired, sacred, and a symbol of power. To show this, the artist makes Akhenaten s nose long, cheeks hollow, chin hanging, lips thick and eyes, feline shaped.
These formal values and iconographic elements of Egyptian and Mesopotamian art have immensely helped us learn about the art and culture of our past. The mainstream of Egyptian art differs from the Amarna period art because at that time there was a lot of change happening. The art began to focus on people and not just animals. Under Akhenaten s rule, the people began to worship a single god instead of many. The focus of art at that time was strictly done to worship and praise Aten. Their art dealt much with sacrifice and worship while the mainstream Egyptian art dealt with that as well as political issues too. Although these two types of art are so different they are also alike in many ways. We need to take a closer look to find these similarities and differences. I never realized that we could find out so much about a culture simply by looking at its art. I am glad that I got to write on such an interesting topic. I ve learned a lot and enjoyed this assignment.