Notes on DVDs watched - 5 Egypt
Notes on DVDs
11.06.18 Treasures of ancient Egypt 1 - the birth of art
The presenter Alastair Sooke first visited Kingston Lacy in Dorset, where he had seen Egyptian antiquities in the garden as a child. These included a sarcophagus, and an obelisk, 2000 years old, which once stood in front of the Temple of Isis on the island of Philae [near Aswan], where it was found by the owner of Kingston Lacy, William Bankes. As well as the obelisk, he amassed [in the 1820s] the largest private collection of ancient Egyptian art in Britain, most of which is on display in the billiards room. Most people might not think of these objects as art, but then the Egyptians had no word for art, or for religion either, although they were one of the most religious people in history. A large book called the Description of Egypt began to appear in 1809 [produced by the French after Napoleon's expedition there]; it contains some wonderful pictures of Egyptian architecture and artefacts, and must have encouraged Bankes' interest. The rest of the DVD is a description of the treasures which Alastair has chosen, not as an archaeologist but as a lover of art.
1. Petroglyphs (Westen Desert). The first evidence of early art comes from a Neolithic site in the Sahara desert: in etchings on a rock 4 women, 3 of whom are pregnant, are shown in a procession leading 6 giraffes . They were made in about 6-7000BC. There is a sense of movement, and the idea of the giraffe as a totem for a rain god. There is the simplicity of using carving on rock to create an outline, which must have caught the sun. It is in an abstract, rectilinear fashion, and the giraffes have a dotted decoration to imitate the skin. Art was very entwined with the animals in the natural world. The Sahara was at that time fertile, like the African savannah, with donkeys, rhinoceroses, buffaloes, gazelles and giraffes, and reliable summer rains, feeding lakes more than 7m deep. Over time, the climate changed and it gradually dried up; the people - semi-nomadic cattle herders, were forced to move eastwards, to the Nile. This provides a hospitable place for agriculture, due to the Nile floods bringing down fertile silt from the First Cataract in summer. Egyptians' thoughts on the Nile shaped how they saw the world: the next treasure is a celebration of the Nile.
2. Naqada Pots. These pots were found in graves by the river bank at Naqada, filled with food and drink to sustain the dead in the afterlife. They were decorated with images which would come to dominate Egyptian art. There is an exhibition of pots collected by the father of Egyptology, Sir Flinders Petrie. Some pots are 6000 years old, and the earliest have black bodies with red tops: the red represents the sand of the desert, and the black stands for the Nile. As time went by, there were changes in the artefacts - by adding handles, or by adding decoration, eg in the form of spirals. Then there were red drawings for example of animals such as flamingoes, gazelles, and especially boats, which were symbolic as they were supposed to take the deceased from this life to the afterlife. In late Naqada pots can be seen the beginnings of Egyptian art proper, where the natural world and the river were important for the culture. Animals and men were brought together in a fluid style, before the art became stylised. In 3000BC, clusters of villages developed into thriving kingdoms; the annual floods brought trade and prosperity; half a million people lived alongside the river.
3. The Narmer Palette (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). In the Nile Valley, at Nekhen, which means City of the falcon, in an area which is now scrubland, the English archaeologists James Quibell and Frederick Green were searching for the remains of a temple in 1894, when they found some ritual objects, and a slab of stone in the form of a palette. It was created in about 3000BC as a memorial to the father of Egypt, king Narmer; it commemorated a series of victories after which Upper and Lower Egypt were unified. It shows the king smiting his enemies; it also shows all the stylistic traits which were to last throughout ancient Egypt art: the way the space is divided up into different levels or registers; the way the human body is portrayed with the legs to one side and the torso in a frontal view, the head in a sideways view, but with the eyes in a frontal view; the size of different people conveying their status; and closely observed images of animals: on one side a falcon as the god Horus and a cow representing the goddess Hathor, and on the other side the king as a bull, attacking a town. These styles lasted until Roman times.
The country Narmer unified went from strength to strength; typical of the country were the pyramids. At Saqqara there is a cluster of them, of which the earliest one is the step pyramid, built to commemorate Djoser, the first king of the Third Dynasty. This ushered in the Pyramid Age, during which 3 brothers were responsible for the next 3 treasures. The father of the 3 brothers was Sneferu, the first pharaoh of the Old Kingdom. He completed an imposing pyramid, south of Saqqara at the ancient site of Meidum, but the next treasure was found in his son's more modest tomb nearby.
4. Statues of Rahotep and Nofret (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). This treasure consists of sculptures of Prince Rahotep and his wife Nofret: these are Old Kingdom art - simple and self-possessed. The main feature are the eyes, which are made of rock crystal; they are translucent and sparkle, with the irises well defined. Rahotep looks as though his brow is furrowed, and is rather careworn; perhaps his wife is the dominant one.
5. Meidum Geese (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). In the next treasure, the artist wanted to convey an agricultural paradise, offering peace and plenty in the afterlife; this was in a wall painting in the tomb of Rahotep's brother Nefermaat, which was discovered at Meidum. The main part to survive was a frieze of geese, which although painted 4500 years ago, seems quite modern. It is based on observation and is balanced, with 3 geese facing one way and 3 the other, with the tail feathers on the opposite bird being at a different height on each side, to avoid monotony; there are also different marks to indicate different types of feathers. The rest of the frieze has been reconstructed by a contemporary artist, who guessed at the composition from a few surviving fragments; it consists of a row of men, with some captured geese. The overall effect is very powerful, even though the scene is stylised.
6. The Great Pyramid (Giza). Of the three brothers, the third, whose name was Khufu, was responsible for one of the most inspiring works of art ever made. Although contemporary with Stonehenge, there is no contest! The Great Pyramid of Giza is the oldest and largest of the three pyramids in the Giza pyramid complex and is the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the only one to remain largely intact. It can be seen from the city, as it is near the outskirts, and is accessible to tourists. A long climb leads up to the king's chamber, which is very plain, almost modern, and now just holds a sarcophagus. The area where the workers who built the pyramids lived has also been excavated; their skeletons were perfectly preserved by dry sand, along with jars of beer and bread for the afterlife. They were well looked after, and were not slaves.
Khufus's son Khafra tried to follow this, and built a grand causeway to connect the pyramid with a temple. On the way one can see the Sphinx, which was said to be carved with his features, but this is thought to be too obvious for a treasure. The next treasure is in Khafra's magnificent valley temple, which has 23 indentations in the floor, indicating where statues would have stood.
7. Statue of Khafra (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). One of the statues of Khafra is in the Museum in Cairo, and bears an expression of kingship; it is carved from diorite, a very hard dark stone. It has been polished to bring out the pattern in the stone, which emphasises the musculature; also notable is the falcon behind the king's head, which represents the god Horus. The message here is that the king is divine; kings were driven by their religious beliefs, and animals were meant to have divine powers, so artists had to be good at portraying animals. One thinks also of gold in connection with the gods, but there are not many gold artefacts surviving from these times.
8. Golden Horus (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). This model of Horus was found in the city of Nekhen, which means City of the falcon. It has a gold-topped head, and piercing eyes which seem to follow you. Animals are linked with the gods because they are in communication with nature; for example, the crocodile builds its nest on the banks of the Nile, and knows when the Nile is going to flood [how?]. For depicting humans, artwork was more rigid and stylised, but Egyptian society was changing, During the Fifth Dynasty, c2450BC, a full-time bureaucracy developed, with 100s of civil servants, as well as priests and social climbers.
9. Statue of Ka-Aper (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). One of these was the priest Ka-Aper, in whose statue, one comes face-to-face with an actual person for the first time in art. The statue was made of sycamore wood, covered with plaster and painted. It shows a self-confident man in the prime of his maturity, realistically as he is quite corpulent. During its excavation, the Egyptian diggers who unearthed the statue called it Sheikh el-Beled (Arabic for "Headman of the village") because of a similarity between the statue and their local elder.
10. Tomb of Ty,(Saqqara). It was not just priests who were important. Hairstyles were socially significant and there was a hierarchy of hairstyles - for example, elite men had short or shaven hair, and then wore wigs; the hairdresser was therefore an important figure. The tomb of the hairdresser Ty at Saqqara contains wall paintings which bring all the conventions of Egyptian art together. There are agricultural workers and donkeys in a row, with one head leaning down, to break the monotony of the row. There is much activity, with boat builders and metal workers, and one large painting shows Ty and attendants on a boat hunting hippos, with fish in the water beneath. There is a pattern of vertical lines behind the boat, and zigzags to represent water; some of the fish are half out of the water, so there is room for variety. The hippos are floating in the water, and one has a harpoon in its mouth, all beautifully depicted.
Generally, the art of ancient Egypt has been shown to be quite different from the stereotype of monotonous and rigid; in fact we find natural things, with close observation of the world. There was also scope for innovation, and the art was capable of change over time.
11.06.18 Treasures of ancient Egypt 2 - the golden age
At the end of the Old Kingdom, Egypt was an impoverished country, but was then re-invigorated by forceful personalities, and sculpture and painting even reached new heights of opulence and beauty, in the Golden Age. If the Old Kingdom was the classical age, with a strong visual style with harmonious repetition, then this was the baroque period, an era of grandeur, embellishment and experimentation.
1. Statues of Senwosret III (British Museum, London). In Thebes (modern Luxor), after the breakdown of the old Kingdom, the New and Middle Kingdoms arose. The early years of the Middle Kingdom were a dangerous time, when rulers needed to be tough. Alastair looked at a tomb which had not been opened for several years. Among the treasures that had been found there were statues of a notorious tyrant; they belonged to Senwosret III, a Twelfth Dynasty warrior king who suppressed Nubia in 2000BC. One of the statues, now in the British Museum, has an idealised torso, but the head is different, as it is more realistic, with a weary expression; more like a portrait, "warts and all".
2. Senwosret III pectoral (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). Senworset was not just a warrior but also had a sophisticated artistic court. The pectoral jewellery, possible a gift for his daughter, was a pendant on the end of a necklace, and was made of precious stones: carnelian from the Eastern Desert, turquoise from Sinai and lapis lazuli from what is now Afghanistan, all set in gold. It depicts the pharaoh triumphing over his enemies, and is somewhat sinister, as it shows a vulture and 2 people crushed underfoot. After a period of chaos came the New Kingdom, when art reached a pinnacle.
3. Hatshepsut's Obelisk (Karnak Temple, Luxor). The kings began to be called pharaoh: the term evolved from a word specifically referring to a building, "great house", to be a designation for the ruler. Hapshepsut was the first to be called pharaoh: however, she was a woman, although she ruled as a king. Her confused identity was evident in her portrait bust: she was depicted with a red skin like the god Osisris, which meant male, and a beard. It was not just Hapshepsut's image which got a makeover: Thebes was also given a facelift. It was transformed by its ambitious architect into a glorious capital city and a showcase for public monuments. She built shrines, adorned with tall structures, and was responsible for the tallest obelisk in Egypt, at Karnac Temple. The tip was sheathed in gold leaf, which would have sparkled in the sun; there is an inscription which says that future people will be able to read of her achievements. She also built a highway out of Karnac towards another monumental structure.
4. Hatshepsut's Temple (Deir el Bahri). Her mortuary temple (opposite Luxor) looks very modern, and is best appreciated from above, when the several levels of it can be seen, with the orderly columns set against the bare rock. Inside are painted reliefs, particularly a voyage to the mysterious land of Punt; there is also a chapel to one side, where Hapshepsut is shown suckling on the mother goddess Hathor. A picture of her right-hand man, the architect Senemet, is also visible. After her, pharaohs vied to build more and more opulent architecture. For example, in the desert are 2 decaying statues called the Colossi of Memnon. Although Memnon was an Ethiopian king, these 2 colossal statues in fact depict Amenhotep III, a powerful pharaoh, who ruled at the pinnacle of the Golden Age. He was like Louis XIV of France, the sun king of the ancient world, and filled his palaces with statues of himself.
5. Glass Fish (British Museum Collection). This was the sort of thing Ahmenhotep would have collected. It was a cosmetic vessel, and was made of glass at a time when the technique of glass blowing had not been invented: blown glass was not discovered until a millenium later. It seems that it was made by winding molten blue glass round a central core, and then adding stripes of yellow and white coloured glass in wavy, naturalistic lines; the eyes were a spiral. The new elite were also commissioning art where it mattered most - their tombs. In the next 2 centuries came 2 very different visions of paradise in the afterlife. Round the corner from Ahmenhotep's grand temple are where lower officials were buried.
6. Nebamun Paintings (British Museum, London). Nebamun was an accountant, who managed to persuade a very competent artist to decorate his tomb with some spectacular wall paintings. There are 11 fragments in the British Museum, one showing a scene of hunting in the marshes, with realistic details of the various birds, and another showing men holding hares by the ears. The best one depicts a banquet, with dancing girls and female musicians depicted in a more naturalistic manner than is usual: they are shown frontal, one with a foreshortened arm. This vision of paradise was what Nebamun hoped for in the afterlife.
7. Tomb of Ramose (Valley of the Nobles, Luxor). Not to be outdone by an accountant, on the side of the tomb of Ramose [the governor of Thebes], there are also carvings of paradise. They are plain, with just the eyes outlined in black, but it is unclear whether they were intended to be coloured or not; there is great detail in the fine carving. Ramose was an official during the reign of Amenhotep III, when Egypt had become a superpower. When he died, his son became pharaoh as Amenhotep IV, who changed everything; he was known subsequently as the heretic king. He rejected worship of the god Amun, and instigated allegiance to Aten, the sun disk. He changed his name to Akenaten, and moved the capital from Thebes to Amarna, which he designated Akhetaten. In statues of him he is portrayed in a very distorted way; it is not known why: his body is elongated and feminised, with a prominent stomach.This new style was everywhere, and the next treasure was found in a private house in Armana.
8. Royal Family Scene (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten was responsible for a family group portrait of Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti and their children: the figures have the same distorted shape, but are also quite domestic. Akenaten is shown holding out an ear-ring to one daughter, while Nefertiti holds two other daughters on her lap: this is an intimate scene of relaxation. Other finds from Armana have been scattered all over the world: in Berlin is the greatest masterpiece of Egyptian art.
9. Bust of Queen Nefertiti (Neues Museum, Berlin). This bust of Nefertiti, made by the sculptor Thutmose, is famous as being that of a perfect beauty, with harmonious lines. She has a very slender neck, but Alastair thinks that this shows signs of stress; her position as Akenaten's wife would have been difficult. The religious revolution was not popular: an excavation at Amarna shows some evidence of that. Many of the skeletons found in the burial sites showed signs of joint disease, such as occur after carrying too heavy loads, and also fractures. The burials were also accompanied by jewellery: some are ritual objects of other deities, such as a turquoise figurine of the god Bes, rather than the god Aten.
10. Tutenkhamun's Funerary Mask (Egyptian Museum, Cairo). Akenaten's son was Tutankhaten, who came to the throne aged 9 and died aged 19. During his reign he reversed his father's religious revolution and moved the capital back to Thebes; he also changed his name to Tutankhamun. He is one of the most famous Egyptian pharaohs, yet one of the weakest. His fame rests on the discovery of this funerary mask, made of solid gold, in his well-preserved tomb. The tomb contained other treasures and wall paintings, plus his mummified remains in a sarcophagus. The skill of the craftsman who made the mask is in depicting kingship, but the mask is also just of a boy.
Generally, the idea of Egyptian art as being rigid and repetitive is not true - although the monuments resonate with power, the more intimate depictions show some indications of vulnerablity.