Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lecture Seven

The Old Kingdom established the grandeur and uniformity of the Egyptian canon in two major realms: architecture, with the pyramid; and figure sculpture. Later pyramids are rare, though sometimes impressive. Yet statues (that Egyptian invention) are everywhere: just visit Central Park. Momentously, the Egyptians placed figure sculpture at the center of the nonarchitectural arts. This is not inevitable, witness paleolithic cave painting and Turner, not to mention Chinese landscapes. Thus the ascription of centrality to the human body, usually idealized, is not a cultural universal. We tend to ascribe this innovation to the ancient Greeks, but it is the Egyptians of the Old Kingdom who deserve the credit.

Amid the uniformity, some EXCEPTIONS stand out. These bend the rules, but do not overtly flaunt their singularity.

The dwarf Seneb (Cairo) is a rare instance where, as an apparently realistic gesture, the common tendency to enlarge the scale of the male head of household was resisted.

Over against the idealized athletic body, whose fashion was set by royal statuary, some pieces demonstrate either obesity or emaciation. While obesity is permissible for members of the elite, outright emaciation is not. Bodies subjected to involuntary anorexia, as it were, include those of workmen, foreigners (especially desert dwellers), and prisoners.

Previously we saw instances of partial rendering in the so-called “reserve heads” and the bust of Prince Ankh-haf in Boston.

The so-called pseudo-groups represent another anomaly: paired representations of the same figure.

During the Predynastic era, small nude figures, male and female, have been plausibly ascribed to the fertility motive. Throughout Egyptian history small children have been conventionally shown naked, with one finger touching the lips and the hair treated as a braid on one side. With the generally delicate nudes that emerge in the Fifth dynasty another concept seems to be at work: the idea of rebirth (into the afterlife) as a second birth, when of course nakedness prevailed. Nudes occasionally refer in later Egyptian art. Comparative analysis shows that the nude does not have just one meaning (as Sir Kenneth Clark assumed in his monograph, “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form”) but several: it is polysemous. Among the meanings are fertility and eroticism; humiliation; vulnerability; challenge and hostility; display of the ideal body; and primal innocence.

We now turn to the other side of the coin, that is, the factors making for uniformity. According to an old, perhaps excessively rigid scheme, Egyptian sculpture permitted only six normative types of sculpture in the round. These are standing, seated, scribe (or squatting), kneeling, asymmetrical, and the block figure (in which the lower body is enclosed in a kind of impenetrable cloak). The first five stem from the Old Kingdom. Only the last, the block figure, had to await the Middle Kingdom to appear.

The more varied figures of servants show that this sextet of typological norms was not absolute. Nonetheless, it constitutes a kind of set of default settings to which the Egyptian artists recurred again and again.

Comparable, though different norms that govern bas reliefs and paintings. Different as they are these media share a common root in what might be called “the homage to the square,” as seen in the grid schemes that are preparatory to the bas reliefs and paintings, as well as the block origin of sculpture in the round. Parenthetically, we noted the Old Kingdom invention of sunk relief, which seems to have had a protective function.

Returning to our chronological survey, we noted that towards the middle of Fifth Dynasty Old Kingdom culture seems to enter into a kind of autumnal period, with less ambitious undertakings.
Still reflective of the grandeur of the Fourth dynasty is the colossal head Userkaf, the first pharaoh of the new dynasty. The Brooklyn Museum possessed three exquisite pieces from the sixth dynasty: the figure of Pepi I with the Horus falcon, another of him kneeling, and the dual seated image in alabaster of Pepi II as a child on his mother’s lap. Pepi, who ascended the throne as a boy, was reputed to have lived to the age of 100.

The often scanty information about the lives of the ancient Egyptians has called forth many works of imagination to make up the slack. The first, some say, was Herodotus, who thought he was writing history, but in many cases was just relaying gossip. Nowadays, the palm seems to belong to Christian Jacq, who has published at least 23 novels on ancient Egypt. Most of these are about later periods, as the pharaoh’s of the Old Kingdom kept their secrets well. Not suprisingly, fantasies have clustered around Khufu, as seen in the preposterous story of his prostituting his own daughter, and the magician episode.

An unexpected, and highly personal aspect emerges from an authentic ancient Egyptian document, the Middle Kingdom story of Pepi II, who was alleged to have been conducting a homosexual affair with his general Sasinet.

Discovered in 1864, the Fifth dynasty tomb of the Two Manicurists at Saqqara of Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep offers interesting visual evidence. Greg Reeder is probably right in interpreting the two as “more than just friends.”

As noted, beginning about the middle of the Fifth dynasty, the Old Kingdom enters into an autumnal or post-classical period. What are the reasons for this change? In principle all autocracies rely upon ideology (in this case the myth of divine kingship) backed by brute force. In practice, though, these two things are not enough. Comparative study of European and Chinese monarchies shows that they maintained their power through a gradual dispersal of assets to their followers. These assets comprised real property (estates) and honors. As a rule this process of gradual alienation was accelerated by usurpation on the part of the gentry, who were constantly seeking to convert lifetime appointments into permanent ones. The result of this process was an erosion of the central power and an increase of provincial prerogatives--decentralization in short.
Some have thought that a series of shortfalls in the Nile inundation produced periodic famines. The inability of the kings to deal with this problem would have lessened their authority.


[To begin with there is a small chronological glitch. Most authorities start the First Intermediate Period with the Seventh dynasty, while Shaw and co. prolong the OK through the Seventh and Eighth dynasties, on the ground that they were centered in Memphis. I follow the traditional sequence.]

The Old Kingdom had lasted about 500 years, a record that has rarely, if ever been equaled since (by my calculation, the British Empire lasted only some 340 years, from 1607 to 1947). Prizing stability above all else, the ancient Egyptians assumed that the good times would role on forever. After the death of Pepi II (about 2180), who lived to be 100, it became increasingly clear that this was not so. Egyptian society had experienced a nervous breakdown. Or in their own terms, Maat had fled.

After the reestablishment of order in the New Kingdom, Egyptians looked back in horror at the experience they had gone through, even though it had only lasted, at most, 129 years. Middle Kingdom writings paint a dire picture of breakdown: compare the lament of Ipuwer and other commentators. Here is Ipuwer: “The land spins around as does a potter’s wheel. The robber is now the possessor of riches. ... All maid servants make free with their tongues .. . The ways are not guarded roads. Men sit in the bushes [waiting to rob and even kill the unwary traveler]. . . . Ah, would that it were the end of men, no conception, no birth! The the earth would cease from noise, without wrangling! [As it is] the children of nobles are dashed against the walls. The once-prayed for children are laid out on the high ground. ... Noble ladies are now gleaners, and nobles are in the workhouse. ... Behold, the owners of robes are now in rags. ... If three men go along a road, they are found to be two men; it is the greater number that kills the lesser.”

Another commentator, Nefer-rohu, adds his voice: “This land is helter-skelter and no one knows the result. ... I show you the land topsy turvy. That which never happened has happened. ... I show you the son as foe, the brother an an enemy, and every man killing his own father. Every mouth is full of ‘Love me!’, and everything good has disappeared.”

Recent scholarship has shown that perhaps things were not so bad in the First Intermediate Period as later generations thought. To be sure, there was a marked decline in artistic quality, as we shall see. However, the decentralization process allowed provincial centers to assert their individuality, laying the groundwork for the more varied art of later Egypt. Freed of the all-seeing pharaonic bureaucracy, there was probably more personal freedom, marred of course by licence and some violence.

Examination of wall paintings, as at el-Gebelein and Mo’alla, seems to bear out the idea of decline. On the other hand, some small sculpture seem not notably different from works of the Sixth dynasty.

At all events, the following lecture will portray the recovery, which opened the way to the Middle Kingdom.

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