Mural decoration and sculpture, largely required to fulfil funerary purposes, developed into a highly active industry. Though the sharp, clear outlines of the murals were chiselled with extraordinary delicacy and many of the statues are clearly the work of skilled hands, those that fashioned them were artisans rather than artists and part of a team. Unfinished tombs provide evidence of the method of mural decoration. A chief artist prepared each surface by separating the different registers with the aid of cords dipped in red paint, subdividing these further into rows or squares. The sections were then filled with figures of men, animals and hieroglyphic characters, each row representing a single activity. It seems probable that there was a common stock of themes from which a nobleman took his choice, for similar scenes are represented in different Egyptian tombs with a reduction or increase in the number of individuals, a variation in the placing of inscriptions or the addition of such details as might please the artist: a bald man, a spotted cow, a frisky calf. The arrangement was apparently guided by the artist’s preference (within the broad outlines of the customer’s wishes) and by the size of the tomb. All available wall space was filled.
A sculptor would carve the figures in low relief, fine detail was added and the finished product was painted. Tomb murals were therefore modelled paintings carried out by a team of artists. Tempera technique was used: natural powdered pigments mixed with water and glue to adhere to the wall surface. Red and yellow colors were natural desert pigments, chalk or lime provided white and soot black. Copper was the source of the calcined mixture for green, cobalt for blue. The colouring, while not entirely true to nature, was not much exaggerated. For example, clothing was usually white (left without paint on the limestone wall), red ochre was used for the sunburnt bodies of men, while pink, pale brown or yellow was used for ancient Egyptian women.
In view of the similarity of subject matter, the scenes may appear to be uniform, but close study shows that no two are exactly alike. There was endless modification and, time and again, a human touch. Furthermore, although mural decoration may appear as a Egyptian mechanical art, the extremely high level of technical and artistic skill, and the harmonious effect should not be overlooked.
The portrait sculptor was the greatest artist of the age. The powerful and life like portraits of Egyptian Khafre and Menkaure pharaohs, the earliest in the history of art, show fidelity in portraiture and mastery of materials. Khafre had twenty-three cult statues in his valley temple, only five of which have been found; one unique one is carved of diorite.
A statue of Pepi I had an overlay of beaten copper on a carved wooden base and the remarkable painted statues of Rahotep (a prince) and his wife, are amongst the finest examples of Egyptian Old Kingdom statuary to survive. The sculptors frequently gave a striking effect to the faces, especially those of wood, by inserting pieces of quartz in the eye sockets with a copper stud, which served also as the pupil. All statues show a stress on the faithful reproduction of characteristics. For example, the statue of Khnum-hotep, a dwarf, modelled in refined detail with sturdy legs and corpulent body, is without doubt a masterpiece of realism.
There were certain conventional poses: hands to sides, striding forward or seated, and a strict canon of proportions. Standing figures were 19-20 units high, and the seated figures were 16 units, the feet were the same length as the height of the head and neck, the distance between the knees and the soles of the feet was twice as long as the feet. Drawing to scale the artist could enlarge a statue, or a scene, accurately. In the tomb of Ti is a representation of an atelier with artisans polishing and carving statues, in accurate likeness of the nobleman. Statues in his tomb show that these were coloured as lifelike as possible. Though these statues were fashioned to house the Ka of the deceased, it should be mentioned that statuary was not yet a mechanical art, nor was the portrait sculpture subjected to the mass production of funerary workshops apparent in later periods.
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