Avant Garde in 18th Dynasty EgyptianArt

Innovative Painters of the 18thDynasty

In  May,  Dr. Edna R. (Ann) Russmann,spoke to the Northern California ARCE chapter. Her topic was,  AvantGarde in 18th Dynasty Egyptian Art: Innovative Painters of the 18th Dynasty.

Dr. Russmann proposed that the changes we seein Egyptian art in the 18th Dynasty occurred deliberately.  The Egyptianattitude toward change was not one of change for change’s sake.

The area of Egyptian art Dr. Russmann exploredwas painting, for it is a media in which it is easier to effect changethan in any other. Paint is easier to work with and it is easier to changeone’s mind in the midst of the painting process. Illustrating her remarkswith slides, Dr. Russmann opened with the  Hearst Museum’s Wepem-nofretstela and the famous painted statue from Meidum of Nofret, wife of Ramosefrom the 4th dynasty, in the Cairo Museum, as examples of the extreme importanceof the animating factor paint provided to the ancients. The colors used,ideally, simulated those in life.

Unfortunately, pigment is very vulnerable to manythings. Examples of experiments which were undertaken to try to ensurethe eternity of the decoration have survived. One, from the Meidum tombof Neferma’at, had figures which decorated the walls of the  tombhe prepared for himself and his family deeply incised and filled with apigmented paste. Sadly, this proved to be a less than satisfactory alternative,for the pastes cracked after drying and some or all  eventually fellaway. The experiment was never repeated.

The method ultimately settled on as most practicaland enduring was that of carving the decorations in relief then applyingpigment to the carvings. This mode of decorating was far less vulnerableto destruction and the images survived even if the pigment was lost. Thusit became a sort of "fortified" painting.  The same craftsmen whodrew the reliefs for the carver later painted them. The result was theemergence of a group of truly excep-tional artists. One of the most famousexamples of high artistic quality as early as the Old Kingdom is the MeidumGeese from the tomb of Neferma’at and Atet.

In the much later tomb of Ramose (18th Dynasty),we find preliminary drawings, not yet carved, of foreigners raising theirarms in praise to the king, Akenaten. The artists who drew these figuresand his colleagues respon-sible for decoration on the many surviving privateand royal tombs were wonderfully trained and clearly knew just what theywere doing. The first step was to draw the figures. The outlines had tobe exactly right as the carver worked directly on the piece in question.On segments of ostraca we see trial sketches that, no doubt, were usedas training tools. One particular ostraca shows two profile sketches, thefirst drawn by a fairly well-trained draftsman, but the second obviouslythat of the master.  Con-tour and outline were very important to thecarving of hieroglyphs. They HAD to be recognizable. By controlling thecontour this could be assured. Therefore, much of a painter’s trainingwas devoted to learning to write. Painters were first and foremost superbdraftsmen.

The characteristic means of finishing paintingswas to apply the necessary paint to the object, then to replace the blackoutline first applied by the draftsman. Dr. Russmann showed her audiencea number of fine examples of the superb draftsmanship of Egyptian artists,and commented that what we usually see is the formal, finished productof a tomb or temple, but it is in the sketches that we can really see thefine quality of the drawing. Her most poignant example was a somewhat comicsketch of a stone mason in which the man has enormous ears (perhaps anearly example of the infamous "cauliflower ear"), a stubbly chin, and anopen mouth; it provides an image of a fellow of not particularly carefulhabits, perhaps a brawler, and clearly a great talker!  The sketchshows an extremely knowledgable control of line.

At Thebes, the New Kingdom court developed it’s necropolis on the West Bank, in what, for the most part,  has provedto be "rotten" rock.  This, however, is why we have paint-decoratedtombs.  The stone was plastered over and painted because it was toopoor in quality to carve. During the 18th dynasty we see wonderful decorationin tombs, with an excellent color sense - a feat not easily accommodatedgiven the pigments available.  To paint, the painter had first togrind the pigment to the appropriate degree of fineness then mix it witha binder of some sort.  Many times the desired color was achievedby "under-painting". Clearly these men were real "professional" painterswho were able to draw with absolute certainty.

During the 18th Dynasty we see some libertiesbeing taken with the formal rules of painting. For example, in the tombof Menna and others, we find papyrus stalks and umbels that has been brushedon freely with a wet brush. This type of painting suggests that thingsthat were transitory were just brushed in and not carefully outlined. Wealso begin to see things that are the result of deliberate choice, forexample, in the treatment of figures. In the tomb of Rekmire there is ayoung servant woman who we see in three-quarter back view. This seems tobe experimentation, but limited to servants and laborers.  In Horemheb’stomb we find a lute player who is bringing her right leg forward (versusher traditional left), her legs are separated and her face is in full frontview; again an experiment with figures. Of the famous three musicians inthe tomb of Nakht, the center musician’s whole body is turned with thetorso frontal, creating a sense of motion and sensuality.

Another interesting innovation is seen in thetreat-ment of feet. First the painter laid down a large patch of paintto color the feet, then he started drawing in the five toes on the nearfoot - sometimes forgetting to differentiate the far foot at all, so thesecond foot was "lost".  This experiment appears most frequently inthe treatment of women, but occasionally men were given toes, sometimestoo many, and sometimes too few!  The artist never dabbled with theimage of the tomb owner, however.  It was his guests, servants, andsec ondary subjects who were the objects of these innovations.

A particularly pleasing tradition - the grapearbor ceiling - shows some interesting innovation in the tomb of Sennefer.Though the grape clusters are painted in the traditional manner, the leavesare created by merely applying circular patches of green then dabbing threewhite notches in each circle to provide the idea of grape leaves.

Typical landscapes, which appear in several tombs,with a pond (or artificial lake) surrounded by flora and fauna, are reallya combination of a ground plan and an elevation - a sort of map. The Guideto the underworld as seen in the tomb of Thutmosis III, is also a sortof map.  In papyrus versions of the Book of the Dead, the Field ofReeds is laid out in a map-like fashion, with canals, water, and trees.But in the tomb of Nakht we begin to see that artists are developing a"sense of landscape".  The contour of the land, trees, and peopleup to their ankles in mud are less schematic and more creative. This innovationappears in sub-scenes where there was freedom to experiment.

The term "avant garde" refers to a movement. Wehave ample evidence that artists were studying each other's work and copying,in some cases in different media - sometimes successfully and others notso successfully. For example, one relief with a hill, trees and a pondcarved in relief just fails to work with the added dimension of depth.What an artist can adapt to painting he cannot necessarily adapt to reliefcarving. We also see unexpected motifs in copies that may be the resultof incorrect interpretation or carelessness.

Tomb painting was going strong through the timeof Amenhotep III. When Akenaten came to the throne many aspects of Egyptianart changed. Some of the changes come from those same Theban painters whowere experimenting. The same men, or perhaps their sons or brothers wentto Amarna. Ideas first worked out in paint among the secondary subjectsdecorating tombs were transferred to relief carving and appear in aspectsof the royal couple - and, interestingly - in NO ONE else. The differentiationof the toes, for example, is prominent in relief carvings of Akenaten;a rendition of Amarna princesses shows one in full frontal view; and theausterity of earlier depictions gives way to open affection between theking, queen and their family. These innovations continue after the Amarnaperiod, as we see in the charming view of Tutankhamun and his young queen,Ankesenamun, on a panel from a coffer, in which the queen, sitting at thekings feet as he is hunting birds, is turned to look at him and her torsois portrayed in a full frontal view.

  • Nancy Corbin
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