credit Lucia Gahlin's Egypt Gods, Myth and Religion

The easy pleasure of Egyptian Art

By Amir Hosny

Forget the NFTs and the immersive experiences, let’s go back to basics.

First there were cave paintings, simple handprints and animal depictions. Then rock carvings like those in Egypt’s Western Desert. The global warming that ended the last ice age pushed the prehistoric peoples out of the once verdant Sahara and settled them in the fertile Nile valley. King Narmer brought these peoples together to create the unified state of Egypt and become the first Pharaoh of a glorious civilisation, and the first truly visual culture. 

Forget the pyramids. They’re astounding, but they distract from Egypt’s rich artistic heritage – one that lasted around 3000 years. Its longevity is incomparable; to have endured so long it must have said something true about human nature. It appealed to the sensibilities of successive invaders from Nubia, Libya, Assyria, Persia, Greece, and Rome. All came as conquerors, but all were seduced by the native culture and adopted its customs. It was irresistible then, and its charms continue today.

What touches me most about Egyptian art is its pure delight in nature. We see this most clearly in the sympathetic depiction of animals. Life depended on the annual flood. The Nile and its banks would’ve been teeming with fish, beetles, crocodiles, snakes, hippos, all kinds of birds and many other creatures. Each is observed curiously and with sensitivity to their character, so that you can see mischief in a crocodile, alertness in a falcon, or potency in a serpent. The animals can speak to the gods, who themselves can take animal form. Life was full of mystery, and the spiritual and material worlds were intertwined. This proximity gives the art immediacy. Creatures are animated beyond the mere sentience we give them. 

Out of this respect a childlike relationship with animals is produced; most visible when they’re humorously depicted in human roles. You get the feeling Egyptians are related to animals like a child patting a horse, with a mixture of pleasure and trepidation about the creature’s unknowable mind. Looking at books of Egyptian art, you come across so many works which are beautiful. Or sweet. Or funny. Or clever. Or just bizarre. Whichever quality, it directly affects your emotions – as good art should. Turning the pages, I find myself smiling, laughing, gasping. Some art can be appreciated, but it’s tough-going, and you might have to know something beforehand or study it for a while to get it. Not that of the ancient Egyptians. It’s very easy pleasure. 

What about humans? Look at the funeral party. It’s such a sensual scene. Full of energy. You can feel the movement. And it breaks the rules of Egyptian art – faces front on, soles of the feet on display, bodies overlapping, a bit of foreshortening. There’s none of the rigidity you’d expect. Don’t you wish you were there? Sadly, we can’t go. But art has the power to transport us. Look at the golden robes, the wigs, the big jewellery, the worldly faces.

We can also take heart from their physiques, especially when compared with the popping muscles and perfect forms of the Greeks. Egyptians enjoyed life and must’ve been dismayed when Alexander’s conquest brought them the gym. How about the monotheistic heretic Pharaoh Akhenaten? This image of a pharaoh with wide hips, a bulging belly and big lips is unique. Androgyny was in, but no sooner was it out when his son, Tutankhamun, restored Egypt’s traditional religion. Artefacts from his tomb (the only one ever discovered intact) demonstrate the sophistication of Egyptian craftsmanship and are admired around the world. He was a relatively unimportant pharaoh however, and if he was buried with such astonishing treasure, can you imagine what wonders were taken from us by all the vandals and tomb robbers?

At the end of his documentary, In the Beginning, the peerless art historian Kenneth Clark stands between the Colossi of Memnon and ponders the impact of human activity on Nature. He credits Egypt’s success with its “respect for the natural order”, contrasting it with our “greedy expansion and exploitation of resources”, and concludes that whilst values such as living in harmony with nature can sometimes be lost, they can always be recovered. This is what we should take from Egyptian art and culture. We live in one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries; biodiversity has almost halved since the eighteenth century. The unending quest for economic growth, urbanisation, and ubiquitous screens all push us further from our ancestors’ experience of life. 

Late capitalism is destroying our humanity, and art needs to respond. The Egyptians had fixed beliefs about the world and the afterlife, and this confidence permeated its art. Our culture is aimless and incoherent – only money is sacred. Our art will necessarily be different, but we should move away from the inane self-obsession that characterises a lot of contemporary work, and unwittingly props up our political system. A renewed appreciation of our place in nature would improve our culture, and challenge those who encourage atomisation, homogenisation, or the escape into virtual reality. 

We have better science than the Egyptians, but we are still fundamentally the same as them – that’s how I understand my reaction to their art. Technology is a trap: let’s not fall into it.


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