A trail-blazing exhibition at the Louvre in Paris focuses on ancient Egyptian drawing, writes David Tresilian
Now in its final days at the Louvre museum in Paris, but due to reopen at the Musées royaux d’art et d’histoire in Brussels in September, L’Art du contour, le dessin dans l’Egypte ancienne focuses on one of the foundations of art in ancient Egypt, the art of drawing.
Presented in a small temporary exhibition space in the Richelieu wing of the Louvre, the exhibition could almost be overlooked by visitors hurrying through to the museum’s main collections. However, the exhibition’s small size belies its importance, since this is apparently the first time that the subject has been dealt with in a dedicated exhibition, and it has benefitted from the kind of scholarly treatment that perhaps the Louvre almost alone of all international museums is still able to devote to it.
There is an impressive catalogue containing specially commissioned essays on various aspects of ancient Egyptian drawing by recognised specialists. These consider topics such as the formal and technical aspects of ancient Egyptian drawing, as well as the material conditions of its production, including the training, remuneration and professional status of ancient Egyptian artists. The aim has been to explore how western-trained art historians might make sense of ancient Egyptian drawing, the curator, Guillemette Andreu-Lanoe, says in her introduction to the catalogue, before going on to quote the opinion of Giorgio Vasari, the Italian Renaissance artist, for whom drawing was “the father of the arts of architecture, painting and sculpture.”
L’Art du contour, the title of the exhibition, might be translated as the art of the line or of the outline, and it is with the notion of outlines that the exhibition begins. When referring to the visual arts or visual artists, the ancient Egyptians talked of the sesh kedout, or “outline scribe”, literally the “writer of forms”, who was responsible for producing the designs that famously decorated the walls of tombs or temples along with papyrus texts, funerary stelae, and occasionally domestic items. This vocabulary brings the ancient Egyptian art of drawing close to the art of writing practiced by other scribes in the form of hieroglyphics, which, as the exhibition points out, were often pictograms or graphically encoded language.
Drawing upon what the exhibition describes as the ancient Egyptian “genius for establishing professional hierarchies,” these outline scribes were organised into schools of impressive size, there being a prescribed course of study to be passed before the right to practice as an artist was recognised. Material discovered at the site of Deir Al-Medina in Upper Egypt in particular has provided insights into the training, working practices and professional grades of the artists and craftsmen who built and decorated the New Kingdom tombs in the Valley of the Kings, along with the tools and processes they used.
Sometimes the outline scribes left sculpted records of their working practices, such as in the late period bas-relief showing artists at work from Saqqara with which the show opens. They also celebrated the status that the profession conferred, with the funerary stele of the designer Maaninakhtef, the second item in the show, indicating its owner’s membership of the literate elite, described as very small in the exhibition catalogue, and the way in which this membership was handed down from father to son across several generations, seven in the case of Maaninakhtef who headed what is described as a veritable dynasty of outline scribes.
In addition to showing the tools that the ancient Egyptian artists used, with some of the wooden palettes employed for mixing paints having survived the centuries in an astonishingly good state of preservation, the exhibition also investigates the artists’ characteristically flattened form of representation and the ways in which they used pictorial space. These things scarcely changed over the several millennia of ancient Egyptian history and they remain instantly recognisable today.
First developed in the fourth millennium BCE, ancient Egyptian representation “did not depict a scene as the eye sees it, but as the image of a world of concepts.” It was a style that had to be learned through years of training — the show contains some fascinating apprentice and practice pieces — and it was one that depicted a graphically regulated and hierarchical world with the same kind of precision and order that is found in formal hieroglyphic script.
Among the practice pieces on show in the exhibition, most of them found at the site of Deir Al-Medina, are drawings on wood or stone fragments (ostraca) that show how line grids were used by the ancient Egyptian artists to ensure proportion and the precise reproduction of standardised figures in different sizes, including those of the reigning pharaoh. Complex compositions, among them those on the walls of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, express hierarchical relationships through the use of repeated forms across ordered registers, with the overall composition being first drawn in outline and then painted in afterwards.
The designs of bas-reliefs were drawn in outline against a line grid to ensure the drawing’s correct proportion, the sculptor’s chisel then following the scribe’s design. Sometimes mistakes were made, with some of the unfinished pieces in the exhibition showing how their designers had gone back over the work to correct mistakes in spacing or proportion, different colours being used, red or black, to indicate the preliminary and then the corrected design. Sometimes the work was abandoned in an incomplete state, with the work of the outline scribe being left unfinished by later colourists or masons.
One contention in this part of the exhibition is that the “extraordinary regularity and equilibrium” of ancient Egyptian design, its content and formal properties scarcely changing over millennia, reflected the order and hierarchy of ancient Egyptian society, the one informing and reinforcing the other. As a result, when evidence of the “breakdown” of this style is found, or of the loss of its precision and clarity, it is tempting to map this onto episodes of social disorder or societal breakdown, or at least onto the temporary disruption of the regular chain of transmission that made the outline scribes into the members of an inherited social caste.
A stele dated to the Second Intermediate Period (1750-1650 BCE) is used to illustrate this way of thinking, with the catalogue entry commenting that the design, showing an offering to the gods, “far from resembling the usual measured and ordered composition” fills the space with disorganised and ill-proportioned objects that are “typical of the maladresse of the Second Intermediate Period.” In this case, the failure to observe stylistic rules, to organise the objects into separate registers, or to make correct use of proportion can be attributed to social disruption. In other cases, other causes can be identified, including deliberate subversion, comedy, or “tongue-in-cheek realism”.
Drawings of this kind are sometimes found on ostraca found at Deir Al-Medina and elsewhere in which the artists seem to have relaxed their usual observance of the strict visual codes, producing doodles, graffiti and other anti-hierarchical or anarchic forms of representation. Some of these stone fragments show human figures that do not at all resemble the idealised versions found on temple bas-reliefs or in wall paintings, and others have men and animals engaged in activities not found in the official representations. Still others are deliberately obscene, leading the exhibition curators to speculate that, outside working hours and once they had let their hair down, there may have been a “subculture of subversive imagery” at work among the Deir Al-Medina artists and artisans.
On the whole, though, the major function of ancient Egyptian drawing was to depict an imagined world of regularity and order, modern art historians deploying the concept of decorum to describe the artists’ desire to ensure that objects were confined to the correct register and drawn to the correct scale and that men and gods were shown in the correct relationships to one another, representing and reinforcing the hierarchies on which the maintenance of social order depended and ensuring the uniformity of ancient Egyptian art across millennia.
Though the exhibition does not say so, part of the shock still induced in many viewers by the art produced during the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) comes precisely from the way that this broke with regular decorum and overthrew the established style. The pharaoh himself was represented with drooping features, narrow shoulders, a rounded belly and heavy thighs, for example, most famously in the extraordinary statue of Akhenaten in the Egyptian Museum, this revolutionary new style reflecting what seems to have also been a social and religious revolution.
The essential conservatism of ancient Egyptian art is accentuated by this contrast, there being generally no intention to depict the unusual, let alone the grotesque, as in the case of the pharaoh Akhenaten, the emphasis being placed instead on the timeless character of certain ideas, activities, or relationships. This gives ancient Egyptian art its somewhat standardised and static character, but it can also be responsible for some of its most miraculous achievements, such as the mural painting of musicians from the New Kingdom tomb of Neferhabef, an official of the 18th Dynasty (1427-1363 BCE), included in the present show.
This timeless character draws attention to the system of ideas that supported and stood behind this art, carefully learned and passed on by the outline scribes responsible for the basic designs and drawings.
L’Art du contour, le dessin dans l’Egypte ancienne, Louvre, Paris, until 22 July and Musées royaux d’art et d’histoire, Brussels, from 13 September.