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How can we assess canonical Egyptian art?

It may not be possible for a modern, especially a Western, observer to escape from European categories and hierarchies of seeing. Since the fifteenth century, through artistic Renaissance, religious Reformation and economic development of capitalism, Western civilization has laid the greatest emphasis on individualism; therefore Western viewers may tend to allot higher value to works where they find features corresponding to their concept of individual portraiture. Yet many of the outstanding works of Pharaonic art are those 'ideal' works where the composition aims to come as close as possible to an ideal, an artistic equivalent of nirvana, in which the individual work attains perfection.

Consider the two images below (click on either for a larger version): the head on the left might be called 'idealised' in contrast to the more 'naturalistic' portrait on the right.

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In the course of his structural analysis of composition, Yuri Lotman offered two categories for understanding artistic production:

  1. aesthetic of identity (Lotman 1970: 156 estetika tozhdestva)
  2. aesthetic of difference (Lotman 1970: 354 estetika protivopostavlenia)

These two terms may be more conducive to understanding formal ancient Egyptian art than the conventional and hotly debated opposition of 'idealism' and portraiture’.

Taken as a whole, ancient Egyptian formal art seems to provide examples of both 'aesthetics': some faces seem to avoid distinguishing individualising marks, and these 'idealising portraits' might be understood in the category of an aesthetic of identity, whereas some faces seem to insist on being different from all others, as if they are 'realistic portraits'. The pairing of the categories lifted out of the Lotman study may help an external observer of ancient Egyptian art to appreciate the power of idealising depictions of the human face. However, the 'realistic portraits' may share technique and treatment to the extent that they too appear as products within an aesthetic of identity. The viewer has to distinguish (1) differences between and (2) differences within groups of works.

Consider the following faces. Try assigning each to one of the two 'aesthetics' - identity or difference. Does this assist your appreciation in particular of the 'idealising' faces? What other factors affect your assessment?

(click on the images for a larger picture)

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This exercise may lead you to view perspective portraits in a different light too.



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