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Art and life in ancient Egypt
Art and life in ancient Egypt

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9 Principles of Egyptian art

We can only know about the meanings of Egyptian art because of what the ancient Egyptians themselves wrote about it, and what can plausibly be attributed to it by Egyptologists and historians on the basis of other kinds of material evidence. As to what is left in the written record, there is no surviving systematic body of theory akin to that produced by the European Academies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But there is enough, taken in conjunction with the analysis of surviving artefacts, for Egyptologists and art historians to have been able to ascertain some of the reasons why Egyptian art is as it is.

Perhaps the most basic truth to acknowledge, however, is that this is a question that is easy to ask but difficult to answer.

Just as in the case of hieroglyphics, the Egyptian language was impossible to read for nearly two thousand years until Champollion cracked the code in the early nineteenth century, so too the ‘meaning’ of Egyptian visual representation was lost with the end of the civilisation itself in the Graeco-Roman period. We have seen how early-modern Europeans conceived, or rather misconceived, Chinese art; the same sort of thing held for Egypt.

The nearest equivalent to Champollion for the visual arts was the German Egyptologist Heinrich Schäfer (1868–1957). By his own account, Schäfer was stimulated to think about Egyptian art by Adolf Erman’s study of ancient Egyptian life which appeared in 1885, when he was 17. Schäfer took his doctorate in 1892 and by the outbreak of the First World War had become Director of the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The first edition of his Principles of Egyptian Art was published in 1919, and four further, much-revised editions appeared during his lifetime. An English translation did not appear until 1974.

Almost 90 years after its first appearance, Schäfer’s study remains controversial. His fundamental discussion of the conventions informing Egyptian art is generally accepted, even though specific features of his interpretations and even his general outlook on the world are disputed. Thus Whitney Davis in his book on The Canonical Tradition in Ancient Egyptian Art (1989) is quick to categorise Schäfer’s speculations about the relation between technical aspects of Egyptian painting and sculpture, and a wider Egyptian ‘world view’ as ‘idealist’, ‘essentialising’, ‘inaccurate’ and ‘highly undesirable’ (p. 52). Yet at the other end of the spectrum, John Baines, in his ‘Theories and Universals of Representation’ (1985, revised 2007) is more circumspect about the ideological aspects of Schäfer’s thinking and regards his technical analysis as ‘the fundamental work on representation in Egyptian art’, work that ‘solves with outstanding success’ many of the problems of non-perspectival art.

With these qualifications in mind we shall explore Schäfer’s basic argument.