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

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11 Change and innovation

As a final word however, we also have to be careful not to generate another set of problems even as we resolve one. We have to ensure we do not substitute for a misperceived naturalism another stereotype of Egyptian art: that it was unchanging, repetitive and even inhuman.

No less a figure than Gustave Flaubert was bored by the succession of temples he encountered in his journey up the Nile in 1850, and commented on what he perceived to be ‘the pitiless rigidity of Egyptian art’. Some such perception also seems to underlie the negative verdicts of the early nineteenth-century connoisseurs, and it was certainly the aspect picked up by Shelley in his sonnet Ozymandias: which describes ‘two vast and trunkless legs of stone’, a ‘shattered visage’, a ‘frown’, and a ‘sneer of cold command’. What Shelley’s traveller surveys is the decay of a "colossal wreck", around which "the lone and level sands stretch far away".

Yet the closer one looks, one can see change in Egyptian art, often quite subtle, but change nonetheless. Egyptian society was not dynamic in the way that modern capitalism is, but neither was it completely static and unchanging. So too in Egyptian art we may isolate a single image to make this point: of a figure of a woman holding a lotus flower.

Here are three examples, taken from stela from the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms (Fifth, Twelfth and Eighteenth Dynasties respectively).

Drawing by R.B. Parkinson
  • How would you characterise the differences?

  • Both the bodies of the women, and the stems of the plants show not insignificant changes. In the Old Kingdom example, the stem bends quite naturalistically, and the body is relatively un-idealised too

    In the Middle Kingdom example, both body and plant suggest a greater stylisation and severity.

    In the New Kingdom example, the flower stem is curved in almost Art Nouveau style, while the body is similarly curvaceous.

The Egyptologist John Baines has developed the concept of ‘decorum’ (first applied in Renaissance studies) to account for both the generic specificity of Egyptian decorative scenes, and for evolution within the code. For Baines, this decorum is ‘a set of rules and practices defining what may be represented pictorially’, and it is linked to both knowledge and social hierarchy. It is bound up with maintaining ‘the proper order of the world’. And yet, as Baines goes on to say, ‘decorum has a history’. Its conventions ‘continued to operate until the end of Egyptian civilisation’, but also ‘it changed markedly during some crucial phases of transition’ (1985, 2007, p. 20).

The most obvious, and in fact exceptional, instance of such change concerns the brief revolutionary Amarna period, when the so-called ‘heretic’ pharaoh Akhenaten overturned the established pantheon of the gods, along with the priesthood, and instituted a sort of premature monotheism focused on the sun (Figure 42). In that brief fifteen to twenty year period the established decorum of art underwent drastic change, and the change back was no less drastic when the old order was resumed at the time of the reign of Tutankhamun.

Stela showing Amenhotep III from Akhenaten’s capital, Tell el-Amarna in the new style
© Trustees of the British Museum
Figure 42 Stela showing Amenhotep III from Akhenaten’s capital, Tell el-Amarna in the new style (EA 57399)

The paintings in Nebamun’s tomb-chapel date from only a few decades before the upheaval of Amarna, not long at all in the three thousand year history of Egyptian art. If Baines is right that artistic decorum is enmeshed with social order, maybe the changes in society, religion and art that preceded Akhenaten’s revolution can be felt in the loosening of the painted decoration within the conventional decorative scheme of Nebamun’s tomb?

For change did happen. Even the unimpressed Flaubert wrote of a painted relief he came across in Philae that, for once, ‘here the artist’s observation cuts through the ritual of the conventional form’. How much more likely that is to happen when the whole society was on the verge of convulsion.