Post by Minna Krejci
The 80s song by the Bangles is clearly referring to the somewhat awkward-looking figures depicted on Egyptian wall paintings. But why do they look like that? If you’ve ever tried to imitate the pose of one of these figures, you know that it’s not quite possible to stand the way they do. So why did the ancient Egyptians paint people this way?
On Monday, we heard a bit from Emily Teeter of the Oriental Institute about art in ancient Egypt – apparently, the ancient Egyptians were more into symbolism than realism with their artwork. Representing the wealth and status of a person was the goal, not describing exactly how the person looked. By this logic, it made the most sense to depict the body in a way that made each part most easily identifiable, with the head in profile, the eye in front view, the torso in front view and the hips, legs and feet in profile. These artistic conventions were fairly strictly adhered to, and specific information regarding the person’s status was conveyed through other details, such as size, stature, clothing, and accessories.
Since the general shape of humans in ancient Egyptian art remained fairly consistent, the Egyptians developed a grid system to allow them to scale the size of a figure up or down while maintaining constant proportions. The grid was based on a unit of length called the cubit, which was originally related to forearm length.
So while figures in ancient Egyptian art may not have necessarily looked like the people they were meant to depict, this was clearly not due to lack of effort by the artists. So much care was put into constraining human proportions that a whole measurement system was designed and utilized for this – yet another example of a model relationship between art and scientific/mathematical themes.
Now good luck getting the song out of your head.