Avant Garde in 18th Dynasty Egyptian Art

Innovative Painters of the 18th Dynasty

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

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

The area of Egyptian art Dr. Russmann explored was painting, for it is a media in which it is easier to effect change than in any other. Paint is easier to work with and it is easier to change one’s mind in the midst of the painting process. Illustrating her remarks with slides, Dr. Russmann opened with the  Hearst Museum’s Wepem-nofret stela and the famous painted statue from Meidum of Nofret, wife of Ramose from the 4th dynasty, in the Cairo Museum, as examples of the extreme importance of the animating factor paint provided to the ancients. The colors used, ideally, simulated those in life.

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

The method ultimately settled on as most practical and enduring was that of carving the decorations in relief then applying pigment to the carvings. This mode of decorating was far less vulnerable to destruction and the images survived even if the pigment was lost. Thus it became a sort of "fortified" painting.  The same craftsmen who drew the reliefs for the carver later painted them. The result was the emergence of a group of truly excep-tional artists. One of the most famous examples of high artistic quality as early as the Old Kingdom is the Meidum Geese 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 their arms in praise to the king, Akenaten. The artists who drew these figures and his colleagues respon-sible for decoration on the many surviving private and royal tombs were wonderfully trained and clearly knew just what they were doing. The first step was to draw the figures. The outlines had to be exactly right as the carver worked directly on the piece in question. On segments of ostraca we see trial sketches that, no doubt, were used as training tools. One particular ostraca shows two profile sketches, the first drawn by a fairly well-trained draftsman, but the second obviously that of the master.  Con-tour and outline were very important to the carving of hieroglyphs. They HAD to be recognizable. By controlling the contour this could be assured. Therefore, much of a painter’s training was devoted to learning to write. Painters were first and foremost superb draftsmen.

The characteristic means of finishing paintings was to apply the necessary paint to the object, then to replace the black outline first applied by the draftsman. Dr. Russmann showed her audience a number of fine examples of the superb draftsmanship of Egyptian artists, and commented that what we usually see is the formal, finished product of a tomb or temple, but it is in the sketches that we can really see the fine quality of the drawing. Her most poignant example was a somewhat comic sketch of a stone mason in which the man has enormous ears (perhaps an early example of the infamous "cauliflower ear"), a stubbly chin, and an open mouth; it provides an image of a fellow of not particularly careful habits, perhaps a brawler, and clearly a great talker!  The sketch shows 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 proved to be "rotten" rock.  This, however, is why we have paint-decorated tombs.  The stone was plastered over and painted because it was too poor in quality to carve. During the 18th dynasty we see wonderful decoration in tombs, with an excellent color sense - a feat not easily accommodated given the pigments available.  To paint, the painter had first to grind the pigment to the appropriate degree of fineness then mix it with a binder of some sort.  Many times the desired color was achieved by "under-painting". Clearly these men were real "professional" painters who were able to draw with absolute certainty.

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

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

A particularly pleasing tradition - the grape arbor ceiling - shows some interesting innovation in the tomb of Sennefer. Though the grape clusters are painted in the traditional manner, the leaves are created by merely applying circular patches of green then dabbing three white 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 really a combination of a ground plan and an elevation - a sort of map. The Guide to the underworld as seen in the tomb of Thutmosis III, is also a sort of map.  In papyrus versions of the Book of the Dead, the Field of Reeds 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 people up to their ankles in mud are less schematic and more creative. This innovation appears in sub-scenes where there was freedom to experiment.

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

Tomb painting was going strong through the time of Amenhotep III. When Akenaten came to the throne many aspects of Egyptian art changed. Some of the changes come from those same Theban painters who were experimenting. The same men, or perhaps their sons or brothers went to Amarna. Ideas first worked out in paint among the secondary subjects decorating tombs were transferred to relief carving and appear in aspects of the royal couple - and, interestingly - in NO ONE else. The differentiation of the toes, for example, is prominent in relief carvings of Akenaten; a rendition of Amarna princesses shows one in full frontal view; and the austerity of earlier depictions gives way to open affection between the king, queen and their family. These innovations continue after the Amarna period, 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 the kings feet as he is hunting birds, is turned to look at him and her torso is portrayed in a full frontal view.

  • Nancy Corbin
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