Ancient Egyptian art

Thursday, December 18th, 2008 @ 7:54 am | About My Art, New Paintings
Painting after Egyptian relief, by Marten Jansen

Don’t you love ancient Egyptian art? Actually, on avarage it’s quite primitive, as in low quality, but their are some true gems. I have made three small paintings after Egyptian reliefs. One is in this site’s abstract art section (it will be moved to the figurative art section), another I added today (as figurative) and can be seen in this post, a third will be added later.
Several things are fascinating about (ancient) Egyptian art. The Egyptian court had close ties with Greece (Cleopatra herself was Greek) and thus the Egyptian court became a mix of Greek cultural refinement and the organic African culture. Nineteenth century Western archeologists assumed that the pyramids were made with slave labour, I guess because Europe was used to doing business in similar ways. Now we know that the workers that made the pyramids were well looked after and weren’t slaves at all, but Egyptian civilians. It’s been speculated that working on the pyramids was part of Egyptian culture and that as such their construction was testament of the sense of unity within Egyptian society, with spiritualism being the driving force. Whether or not this is true, one of the attractions of Egyptian art is the sense of freedom it has. This again contributes to the belief that art can only thrive under conditions of freedom, but maybe this pertains to the visual arts more than to literature, for instance. Also, freedom is actually hard to define, because an individual may still find personal freedom under oppressive circumstances, and, societies that may be free from oppression by the state may still be unpermissive with regard to deviating artistic views.
Ancient Egyptian art is the product of a longstanding artistic-religious tradition, because the religious establishment would determine the artistic contraints to which the artist would have to abide. I wouldn’t call that artistic freedom, and yet it worked, the constraints didn’t seem to inhibit the artist’s creativity. So maybe the defining factor is whether or not an artist feels free, regardless of the circumstances.
The theme of the best known Egyptian art is usually the power of the pharaoh (and/or other royalty). Like in the relief my painting was made after, the subject is portrayed as determined and purposeful, a piece of propaganda designed to leave no doubt about who was in charge. One of the things that interests me from a technical point of view is the compactness of the message. These propaganda-oriented images are catching in an immediate sort of way. The link with our times is that we live in the age of pop culture, which is very similar in it’s immediacy. As a teenager I wanted to become a pop musician (as teens do) and what I got out of it was the realization of the need for compactness: an artwork that doesn’t need elaborate interpretation or schooling on the spectator’s part, but speaks to people at a basic level. Because of my interest in complexity, I failed as a pop musician :-), but as it turned out, in painting complexity can be combined with immediacy.
The relief that served as a model for my painting was monochrome and so I conjured up the colors, as well as the mosaic and the image of the sun in the background.
This painting was the second I did after I had “heard my click” (see autobio). Its a very simple painting, charmingly executed perhaps, and confirms that my decision to go abstract was correct.

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