A Totalizing Aesthetic without Distinctions

Reading “Art: A New History” by Paul Johnson

“For sheer tenacity, durability and dedication, there has never been anything to match the art system of ancient Egypt.”

In the second chapter, Ancient Egypt and the Origins of Style, Paul Johnson focuses on two-dimensional art and spends most of the chapter discussing the meaning and intent of Egyptian style in its totalizing perspective. That is, that there is no distinction between art, religion, social or political life.

Sketch of detail from false door, limestone relief, c. 2400 BC

Egyptian art is a communication system. Johnson notes that “the Egyptians never allowed the purely pictorial forms to escape from their primary task of communicating information.” This reminds me of my work in graphic design; an aesthetically pleasing layout is drafted and developed into a style guide which is then followed carefully on subsequent work. While the design must be visually appealing, it’s primary purpose is communication, and even the design elements, such as color or imagery, are all ultimately about that communication. Similarly, a ‘style guide’ was created by Imhotep (chief minister to the Pharoah Djoser) during the Third Dynasty (2686–2613 BC) and continued as the predominant art form in Egypt for 3,000 years.

Egyptian art is so concerned with communication, that perspective is disregarded. The larger elements are not closer to the viewer, they are larger because they are more important. Objects are shown from their most distinctive angle; a pond is is rendered as though viewing it from above, but the fish swimming in it are seen from the side; the human figure is designed with the head and lower body in profile, while the eye and chest are shown frontally (sometimes with two right – or left – hands, so the thumb is clearly visible).

Sketch of Portrait of Pharoah Amenhotep III, 1391–1353 BC, granodiorite sculpture

This lack of distinction is clear when we consider the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten (18th dynasty, 1353–1336 BC). He introduced a new style into Egyptian art based on his belief in one god. This “new art” was seen by his contemporaries as a distortion of the traditional cannon of Egyptian art forms and he was viewed by many Egyptians as apostate. Paul Johnson thinks of this period as a usurpation of fashion over artistic order, in part because even some of the leading artists of this style did not practice the style in their own personal work. This art may appear more expressive with its relaxed postures seemingly more realistic portrayals, but it was still dictated by the ruling class.

Egyptian art, Johnson argues, is ultimately about order. We observe this in the stiff postures of statues, in the consistent conformity to the style guide, in the archetypes of pharaohs and gods. All art had a function and there was no “fine art” or art for art’s sake.

Sketch of detail from a wall-painting in the tomb of Khnumhotep, c. 1900 BC


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