To realise his drawing, the artist uses several techniques, the first one being to draw a red matrix, in which the person or animal is orthogonally positioned, so that it is easier to transfer it onto walls or textiles. From the Fifth to the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, the human body is always structured in a grid of eighteen squares in height. This preliminary framework of lines, which disappears when the final scene is painted, illustrates perfectly the concept of a graphical, regulated world (, and ). However, the strict codes of the grid proportions do not apply to all categories of Egyptian creations. Many artefacts presented in the exhibition show the liberty and jubilation of the artists in infringements of these rules. One typical example is an extraordinary shroud with the deceased shown with a front view of her face (see left), as can also be seen in some paintings of musicians from the Tomb of Nebamun in the British Museum (EA 37984).
These works reveal the imagination of Egyptians, beginning with their gods, whose worship gave rhythm to their life and reflected their concept of the world. Drawing imparts life to the subject, reality to the object and power to the represented divinity. The magic of drawings, texts and interlaced images, protects the Egyptian world from the forces of evil and chaos which threaten it ceaselessly, in the real world or in the afterlife.The representations of human beings, men or women, respect a figurative code which confers upon them an ideal, young, slim and flawless image. The Pharaoh is shown in majesty, as on the magnificent ostracon from the Louvre, on which is painted the profile of Rameses VI, drawn first in red ink and finished in black ink, where the cheeks of the pharaoh are delicately enhanced in red ochre and his lips are painted red (see photo left). However, the draughtsmen did not hesitate to draw their fellow men 'warts and all'. Numerous representations of obese men and women, hunchbacks, old people or foreigners, characterised by an explicitly un-Egyptian physical appearance, show the draughtsmen's taste for realism, naturalism or even caricature ().
There are, however, some exceptions and dispensations to the fundamental codes of Egyptian art, in particular when it is a question of showing minor or subordinate characters. So, servants, craftsmen or farmers in the exercise of their duties are generally treated with great freedom, and drawings on ostraca often depict them naturalistically: a tubby stone-cutter full of life, the hungry guardian of a herd, a misshapen harpist bending over his instrument, or a child crying as a pig devours his grain (). So many small scenes of life are outlined on these ostraca with a realism that is not without humour.
Egyptians frequently represented nature on the banks of the Nile. For more than three millennia, they used the elements of their landscape, the flora and fauna, in many of their hieroglyphs. For the draughtsmen, hunting and fishing parties are the opportunity to represent birds in full flight, as well as the different species of fish and the inhabitants of swamps, in scenes that are full of life (). Drawings on ostraca that display familiar animals such as dogs or monkeys are very common. These works can be considered as small paintings (). The ostracon from the Louvre representing three dogs chasing a hyena is a perfect illustration of this (). Nature can also be regarded as a hostile element: the dangerous animals of the swamps, such as hippopotami, threatening to ravage in one night the entire crops of a field. Drawing these scenes was often intended to prevent damage to the crops, thanks to the sympathetic magic of the image.
The exhibition enjoys the great privilege of hosting for five months one of the most famous of Egyptian papyri, the Turin Erotic Papyrus from the Ramesside period, which was discovered in the early nineteenth century and analysed for the first time by Jean-François Champollion; today, unhappily, it is much degraded () but visitors to this exhibition have the bonus of being able to see one of the copies that was made very soon after its discovery, which has been recently found in the Louvre Museum. This copy allows everybody to see the detail of the many erotic scenes present on the first two-thirds of the roll, and the last third showing various animals performing human tasks. The catalogue - on pages 108-117 - (see the Bibliography) gives a rather interesting analysis by the well known French Egyptologist Pascal Vernus of the scenes and their artistic representation on the papyrus (including a complete reproduction of the Louvre copy). Other examples of erotic ostraca can be seen in the showcases of the museum, together with many ostraca showing groups of animals engaged in parodies of human activities (see the ostraca presented on page 3).
The Royal Museums of Art and History have in their galleries and reserves a remarkable series of more than sixty figured ostraca. They were mainly acquired during the years 1930-1934 when the Belgian Egyptologist Jean Capart (1877-1947) accompanied the Belgian royal family (King Albert I and Queen Elisabeth) on their visit to Egypt (they were in Deir el-Medina with Bernard Bruyère on March 25th, 1930).
Many of these ostraca, coming probably from Deir el-Medina, could be found on the Luxor and Cairo markets and drew the attention of Capart. He was very much attracted by the artistic skill demonstated in these artefacts and decided to buy thirty-one of them in 1930, and another eighteen during his visit of 1934.
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Many of these ostraca have been recently restored and nearly the whole collection is displayed in the exhibition, some on show for the first time. Luc Delvaux, the Curator of the ancient Egypt collection of the museum, as well as General Secretary of the Association Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth, has published, with Amandine Pierlot, a graduate student, a well documented book on the ostraca of the museums (see Bibliography).
Many other interesting exhibits are worthy of attention during your visit - for example, you can see, without having to go specially to Avignon (where it is normally displayed), the twelfth fragment of the Nebamun wall paintings, the eleven other fragments of which are displayed in Room 61 of the British Museum. The Avignon scene is particularly fine, as it depicts a 'funerary banquet', very common in the Eighteeth Dynasty (see photo on the left). Also on display are: a fine Tauret statuette in painted wood, dedicated by the draughtsman Parehotep and his sons Pay and Ipu () ; several pieces of kitchen-ware, in Egyptian blue faience decorated with papyrus and lotus flowers or fishes () ; and one of my favourite artefacts: the plan of the tomb of Ramses IV on papyrus (). It gives, with hieratic inscriptions, all the instructions for the design of the pharaoh's tomb and is a very rare 'geographical' object, another being the Wadi Hammamat mining map also in Turin.