This major exhibition, which was on display in the Louvre in Paris during the summer, has now moved to Brussels, where it will remain until 19th January 2014. As the very first European exhibition intended specifically to demonstrate the extraordinary dexterity of Ancient Egyptian scribes and artists, it is well worth a visit, as Raymond Betz reports.
The title L’Art du Contour – Le dessin dans l'Égypte ancienne (‘Scribes of Outlines – Drawing in Ancient Egypt’) defines the theme of this exhibition, which opened at the Royal Museums of Art and History (RMAH) in Brussels in September 2013. L’Art du Contour has given its organisers an opportunity to display the full range of drawing produced by the Egyptian civilisation; the ancient scribes and artists, driven by an obsession for efficiency combined with a love of beauty, often created real works of art, and sometimes true masterpieces.
The exhibition, which has been moved to Brussels from Paris, with some changes (210 artefacts instead of 186), is arranged in fifteen sections that we will illustrate below in order to give as complete an overview as possible.
As an introduction, visitors are given a glimpse of the first Predynastic drawings that appear in Egypt during the late Palaeolithic period (between 23,000 and 11,000 BC). Since 2004, Egyptologists from the Belgian Museums (directed by Dirk Huyge) have been exploring the sites of el-Hosh and Qurta (between Luxor and Aswan) in Upper Egypt, and have discovered the oldest animal and human drawings that are known in the country.
The petroglyphs show aurochs (Bos primigenius), antelopes, gazelles and hippopotami, as well as stylised images of female figures, and are between 17,000 and 19,000 years old ( and see articles in Ancient Egypt Magazine 77 and 78).
One of the best examples of a Predynastic drawing (gazelles and a boat) can be found on painted pottery dating from the Nagada II period ().
Hieroglyphic texts designate draughtsmen-painters by the composite expression
'sesh qedut' and often translated as 'contour (or outline) scribe'. Based on the root
'qed', ‘to fashion, give form to or turn (as in pottery) ’, the word
'qedut' refers to the outline of a subject drawn by a
'sesh' (scribe) who, with his palette and brush, creates texts and drawings. Because drawing can be considered as the art of the line, sesh qedut is translated here as ‘scribe of outlines’, whereas many Egyptologists prefer ‘scribe of forms’. As early as the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians’ talent for establishing professional hierarchies is apparent in the organisation of draughtsmen-painters’ workshops. They had their directors, administrators, inspectors, commanders and, from the New Kingdom onwards, chiefs, whose sons were often their apprentices and succeeded them.
The hieroglyphic system with which the ancient Egyptians graphically encoded their language uses only symbols representing humanity, fauna, flora, landscape and the universe to describe both the tangible and the divine world. These signs can be used in the same text, for both their sound value (phonogram) and for the idea they convey (ideogram). The intricate relationship between writing and drawing is especially evident in some signs that were not made to be pronounced but remained pure drawings, acting as a ‘determinative’ supporting the understanding of the preceding word. A scene on the wall of a temple or funerary chapel can be regarded as a monumental ‘determinative’ of the text accompanying it. The scribe ‘draws’ the written word, the draughtsman ‘writes’ the image, both roles often being executed by the same person, as in the Book of the Dead of Khonsumes (left photo).
From the sketch to the finished work, the draughtsman used tools and materials specific to each successive stage of creation. In his palette he kept his brushes (slender reed stems chewed at one end) and cakes of colour in cupped recesses. He ground these pigments into powder using a mortar and pestle. He then mixed these colours with water from a small jug in pots or on fragments of curved pottery. There are drawings on virtually all the materials then available in Egypt : papyrus, fabric (linen), tanned hide, wood, terracotta, mouna (the earth, chalk and lime rendering used on walls of tombs) and, of course, stone, ranging from the monumental to the minute (ostracon ). Wood or hard stone polishers were used to smooth the surfaces on which they worked (papyri or walls).
The title ‘scribe of outlines’ appeared in Giza in the mid-third millennium BC, during the Old Kingdom. The craft of these scribes was passed on from master to apprentice, often from father to son. The stela of the master draughtsman Dedia lists the names and titles of six generations of his forebears in the service of the god Amun (see left). To learn his craft, the apprentice draughtsman copied ancient models as can be seen in unfinished drawings on the walls of tombs and countless ostraca. The apprentice drew his exercise in red paint and his master then corrected it in black, a system which lasted for three millennia. ( et ).
It is on Egyptian papyri (administrative, medical, funerary or religious) that we find the first illustrated texts, just like the illuminated documents created in the West in the Middle Ages. The technique improves during the centuries; a real layout with columns of texts and illustrative pictures appears at the beginning of the second millennium BC. During the New Kingdom, the pictures free themselves from the texts and occupy more space. The creation of these papyri was a long process; some parts of funerary papyri show richly illustrated thumbnails, executed with great care, but the last pages are very often written hastily, with empty frames that were never executed. The exhibition includes an extensive series of papyri coming from either the Louvre or the RMAH: the Book of the Dead of Khonsumes, already mentioned, a letter from the draughtsman Hormin to the scribe Hori, the Book of the Dead of Nebseny (British Museum), and the papyri of the scribe Mesemnetjer, Queen Nedjemet, Neferubenef and Neferrenpet, the funerary book of Imenemsauf, the mythological papyrus of Bakenmout, and several more.
The fragments of wall paintings in this section all come from tombs in the Theban necropolis, the real ‘conservatoire’ of Egyptian painting, which reached its apogee in the Eighteenth Dynasty in the reigns of Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III (c. 1398-1348 BC). The stages in the production of these paintings, the work of the ‘scribes of forms’, are visible on many examples and demonstrate that the most qualified of these artists could be both scribes and artists, designers and painters. The beautiful ‘funeral boat scene’ from the RMAH is a brilliant illustration of this (see left). At that time, the palette of the Egyptian painters freed itself from the flat colours which were the norm at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and scribes were emancipated from the rigours of strict outlines. Although bodies are still outlined with dark red continuous lines, drawn with great dexterity, their hair is simply brushed with rapid strokes that give volume and movement. Similarly, the transparency of the mourners’ clothes, the water of the river, the columns of the kiosks and the grape clusters are painted with spontaneity, using a fast and free hand, and the painter freely uses nuances of colour, simple dots or sinuous strokes.
The Egyptians established the principles of two-dimensional representation of their world very early on, in the late fourth millennium BC. Artists continued to respect these codes for more than three millennia, in the service of royal propaganda, religion and magic, thereby ensuring the stability and permanence of the subjects depicted. Egyptian artists did not depict a scene as the eye sees it but as an image – or images – of a world of concepts. Each element of an image is flattened and shown in the most relevant manner. A picture is thus a composition of multiple viewpoints. The term aspective has been used to describe this technique: for example, in drawing a face, the eye faces us, but the nose is in profile. Without perspective, a crowd is depicted as a series of horizontal ranks, the uppermost being the more distant. A figure’s high social status is indicated by its size, always larger than ordinary individuals. (see right photo and ).
A magnificient example is given by the very nice portrait of dame Henutneferet (photo right). It is a fragment coming from one of the walls of theban tomb 181 of his man Ipouky (image courtesy August Kestner Museum). The wall has been presented as a on the Osirisnet.net website.