Art and order

We think of art as a form of creative expression. It hasn’t always been that way.
Fowling scene from the Tomb of Nebamun, c. 1350 BC, courtesy British Museum. He’s with his wife, daughter and their tabby cat, relaxing in the afterlife.
Contemplating contrapposto (counterpoise)—as I did on Wednesday—inevitably makes me think about the art of ancient Egypt. Contrapposto is the door that separates modern sensibility from ancient thinking. On our side lies personal expression, naturalism, self-direction and change. On the other side was tradition, continuity and ritual. The Egyptians never stepped through.
In fact, looking at Egyptian culture as a whole is like looking at a distorted mirror image of our modern selves. Consider the very useful Pythagorean theorem. The relationship it describes was known to the Egyptians as early as 2000 BC as lists of numbers, but the ability to upgrade that into a predictive formula was lost on them. We had to wait until around 500 BC for the Greeks. This was not for lack of scientific intelligence, for the Egyptians were great builders, miners, and chemists. 
Mortuary figurine of a woman; 4400–4000 BC; crocodile bone. The workmanship gets more sophisticated over time, but the character and pose remain unchanged. Courtesy the Louvre.
Egyptian culture came into being as people were compressed into the Nile River Valley by desertification. Irrigation supported the development of a stable Egyptian culture. By the New Kingdom it was very powerful indeed, reaching around the Levant and down through the Nile Valley.
Egypt was both a fruitful and precarious place to live. Drought and famine were ever-present threats. The Nile, which gave Egypt life, was also home to deadly snakes and spiders, hippopotami and crocodiles. It’s no surprise that theirs was a very structured society. Going outside the rules could be fatal.
Wooden statue of the scribe Kaaper; c. 2450 BC; wood, copper and rock crystal, courtesy Egyptian Museum (Cairo).
In fact, order and continuity were the very hallmarks of Egyptian culture. Ancient Egypt was a series of stable kingdoms, divided by short, painful bursts of instability. These are the times we tend to study, because they’re so interesting. Take for example, the Amarna Period. Around 1350 BC, Amenhotep IV ascended the throne and instituted a series of reforms. He changed his name to Akhenaten, promoted the sun deity Aten as the sole deity, suppressed other gods, and moved his capital to the new city of Akhetaten.
But our fascination with the sun-worshipping pharaoh was not shared by his successors. Subsequent pharaohs, TutankhamunAy, and Horemheb, pointedly worked to erase Akhenaten’s name, ideas and works from Egyptian history. It was back to business as usual in Egypt.
Egyptian statue of the Persian king Darius the Great, c. 500 BC. The robes are Hellenistic, the pose is resolutely Egyptian. Courtesy National Museum of Iran. 
This same conservatism can be seen in their art. It spans a vastly long period as human civilizations go—from the 31st century BC to the 4th century AD. Through most of that time, it changed glacially slowly. Only at the very end, when Egypt was ruled by Achaemenid satraps and the Ptolemy pharaohs, did Hellenistic influences begin to bleed into Egyptian culture. And even then, the changes were subtle.
Of course, most surviving Egyptian art comes from tombs and temples. Religious art is, by nature, conservative and symbolic. Thus, Egyptian art might give us more insight into their religion than into their aesthetic ideas.
But of what we know, Egyptian art was essentially functional and bound up in ideology. There’s an amazing amount of it intact: paintings, drawings, pottery, jewelry, sculpture, architecture, glass and amulets.
But none of it is individual. Unlike the ancient Greeks, we can’t identify Egyptian artists, schools or styles. That’s because ritual art precludes individual expression. The poses, clothing and regalia, colors, and skin tones were all symbolic. Even the delightful worlds recreated in paint on the walls of tombs were idealized.
Art, in such a world, serves the purpose of maintaining cosmic order, rather than exploring new truths. And yet, even here, in the eyes of a scribe or the beating of wings among the reeds, you see glimpses of life. It’s mesmerizing.

The Case of the Missing Mummies

The missing statuette of  King Tut’s sister. No, she’s not a conjoined twin; that’s a lock of hair symbolizing her youth. She is holding an offering in her hand.
By 1922, when Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen in the Valley of the Kings, opinion was swinging around to the idea that the treasures of Egypt were most appropriately left with Egypt herself, rather than parceled out between the British Museum, the Metropolitan, and private collectors.
The Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo holds the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities, including many treasures from Tutankhamen’s grave. During the 2011 revolution, many of its artifacts were damaged or stolen. A full inventory of the lost works has never been released, but among the damaged (and restored) items were two statuettes of King Tut, worked in cedar and covered in gold.
Yesterday the Telegraph reportedthat Egypt has issued an international alert reporting the theft of a statuette of King Tut’s sister, stolen during rioting in Mallawi this past summer. During the violence, looters walked off with every single portable item in the City Museum—more than a thousand objects. Of the 46 left in situ because they were just too big to move, many were vandalized. (You can view the complete list here.)
The Mallawi City Museum when looters were done with it.
More than half the items have been retrieved by Egyptian authorities. Many of the ones still missing are from nearby Tell el-Amarna, which is the site of the short-lived capitol founded by the monotheist pharaoh Akhenaten. Amarna-era artifacts fetch the best prices from collectors.
Either the Mallawi riots were orchestrated to provide cover for the thefts, or the Egyptian families which control the illegal antiquities trade were able to strike fast and capitalize on the riots as they unfolded.  After all, the tradition of tomb-robbing in Egypt is far older than the business of professional archaeology itself.
They were together for more than 4500 years, before looters broke them up… into small pieces. This fifth dynasty tomb portrait was shattered during the riots. What couldn’t be stolen was destroyed.
What little I know about Egyptology comes from reading Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody mystery books. Under her real name of Barbara Mertz, the author held a PhD in Egyptology. She passed away a few months ago. This real-life mystery contains all the elements she threw into her novels. I imagine she’d have found it fascinating—and heart-breaking, at the same time.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!