Thursday, June 16, 2011

Primacy of Egyptian art and architecture

"Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization" (1987-91), a major polemic by J. D. Bernal, has elicited much controversy. Despite the misleading title, this publication is not a contribution to Afrocentrism, as the term is usually understood. Instead the author seeks to restore what he terms the "ancient model," which posits the massive indebtedness of ancient Greece to Egypt. He holds that this view was dominant in ancient Greece itself, and prevailed in Europe until the late 18th century, when rising Eurocentrism sidelined it.

Against Bernal, Mary R. Lefkowitz has orchestrated a torrent of criticism--in her own book "Not Out of Africa," and in an edited volume, "Black Athena Revisited," gathering a whole raft of scholars to smite Bernal’s work. In the eyes of some this massive assault demolished Bernal. Yet he was not to go down so easily. In a collection of essays and reviews, "Black Athena Writes Back" (2001), Bernal vigorously rebutted his opponents. The upshot is this: some of what Bernal says is true, and some of it isn’t.

Yet that which is the case suffices to refute the conventional wisdom of the Hellenophile miraculists, who assert that the Greek "miracle" was a case of parthenogenesis, for it emerged without any help from the older peoples dwelling to the east and south. Apart from its fantastic etymologies, "Black Athena"'s major defect (in my view) is neglect of the ancient Near Eastern sources from Sumeria, Assyria, and Syria-Palestine (as pointed out by Walter Burkert and others).

Bernal postponed the subject of artistic relations for a later volume. It appears that this sequel will not be appearing. If so, this will be a pity, as the case for artistic indebtedness is a substantial one. It is not impossible, though, to divine some of the points Bernal might make in his putative supplement. The following outline of the Egyptian legacy in art and architecture looks beyond Greece and Rome, to modern Europe

1. Ashlar masonry. The Third Dynasty funerary precinct of Zoser at Saqqara (ca. 2630-2611 BCE) is the first major architectural enterprise to be executed in stone throughout. Moreover, the fine limestone blocks are in ashlar masonry. That is, they are parallelepipeds, six-faced regular solids of standard sizes, laid in regular horizontal courses. Before this, such monuments were of mud brick. Imitating the regularity of the six-faced bricks (top, bottomm and four sides), the Saqqara limestone blocks are examples of skeuomorphism, a learned term for the migration of a form native to one medium into another. Once invented, ashlar masonry had a great future. One thinks of the walls of Greek monumental buildings, not to mention countless stately banks, libraries, and governmental buildings of our own time—all executed in ashlar masonry. It is sometimes assumed, by the way that standardization is a product of our own industrial age. However, standarized bricks and limestone blocks long preceded it.

2. Modularity. The invention of ashlar masonry is probably the first instance of the principle of modularity—the regular "scansion" of space using architectural means. A kind of negative version appears in the regular bays of Egyptian temples and hypostyle halls.

3. Columnar architecture. The Saqqara complex shows several types of engaged (attached) columns. Later, the columns are freestanding, surmounted by capitals, and marshaled into rows (colonnades). Indebted to Egypt, columnar architecture was fundamental in ancient Greece, Rome, and the Renaissance.

4. Pyramids. As is well known, the Egyptians perfected the pyramid as a geometrical monument with five smooth faces (counting the base). There is a long history of replication of pyramids, culminating in I.M. Pei’s glass examples in Paris and Washington, D.C., as well as the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas. However, the pyramid embodies the broader theme of elementalism. As architects from Le Doux to Le Corbusier have shown, beauty and authority stem from dramatically simple forms.

5. The hypostyle hall. As seen at the Karnak temple, this is a large pillared hall in which the central section, the nave, is higher than the two wings on either side. Light floods into the structure’s middle from the clerestory at the top of the nave. This principle recurs in Roman basilicas, and again in Christian churches, including many modern cathedrals.

6. Orthogonal city planning. Groups of Old Kingdom mastabas are distributed according to a gridiron plan. Like most early towns everywhere, most Egyptian cities were apparently “organic” (higgledy-piggeldy) in planning. Hower, the Middle Kingdom town of Kahun, created anew to accommodate workers, reflects a system of right angles. Broadly speaking this is the pattern found in Greek “Hippodamean” cities, Roman towns, and many American cities. Regardless of whether there is a direct connection, the Egyptians pioneered the orthogonal principle.

7. Monumental sculpture. Beginning in the Third Dynasty the Egyptians created canons of monumental sculpture, life-size or nearly life-size pieces that follow well-defined patterns of arrangement. In this way they invented the s t a t u e, as distinct from the “figurines” and rough “idols” formerly dominant.

8. The nude. During the Fifth Dynasty the Egyptians introduced nude male figures in the tombs. These are shown striding, with the left foot forward. Sporadically recurring, the form was purloined by the Greeks for their k o u r o s.

9. The bust. This is an abbreviated human being, a type of sculpture showing only the head and shoulders. The earliest surviving example seems to be the Old Kingdom Ankh-haf in Boston. There is a charming wooden example in the Tut treasure—and of course the world-famous Nefertiti in Berlin. The Romans produced busts of revered ancestors. And busts proliferated in the European baroque.

10. The sphinx. Egyptian sphinxes (atypical examples of animal-human hybrids) generally represent rulers. In Greece the form, always female, is hypothesized. Modern artists like Elihu Vedder and František Kupka have quoted the form as a token of inscrutability.

11. The frame. Early relief carvings, such as the Wadji stele in the Louvre and the wooden Hesira panels, fix the frame situation by raising the surface outside the picture area so as to create a uniform boundary. Later, the Egyptians developed wall paintings that clearly suggest beaded frames. Simulated frames occur in Pompeiian painting, while real three-dimensional examples enclose European canvases from the Renaissance to the present.

12. Illustrated books. In their papyri the Egyptians invented the practice of interspersing pictures amidst columns of text. The illuminated books of Byzantium inherited this practice. It lives on in our art books, with their dialogue of picture and text.

13. Comic papyri of animals simulating human conduct. A striking example is the strip of the lion and the gazelle in the British Museum. These images show that the ancient Egyptians had a sense of humor. Yet such depictions are not just humorous but embody social commentary. Cats peacefully look after mice and geese, while a gazelle must ponder how to cater to her lion master. Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck came much later.

14. Abstract art. During the Amarna period (ca. 1372-54 BCE) the old anthropomorphic and thereomorphic (human and animal) forms of deities were discarded in favor of a circular rendering, the concave disk standing for the Aten, the solar principle. Modern abstraction, also rejecting the depiction of living beings, has also favored circles and disks. Among the abstract artists exploiting the disk form are Robert Delaunay, Theo van Doesburg, and Kenneth Noland.

15. Gender variation. During the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom human figures complied with an established gender contrast. Men were robustly muscled, their buff upper torso revealed by the standard kilt. Women were slender, graceful, and lissom, generally wearing a slight slip-like garment. During the New Kingdom major changes became evident. Queen Hatshepsut (r. 1479-1457 BCE) ruled as a man. Her statues sometimes reflect her birth gender (her feminine side) and sometimes her masculine status, with pronounced features and a false beard. With his shrunken upper torso and pear-shaped middle section, the Amarna pharaoh Akhenaten (r. 1353-1337) shows a pronounced gender ambiguity. Recent scholarship holds that his wife Nefertiti may have assumed the male identity of Smenkhare, so as to be co-ruler with her husband during his last years. The depictions of Smenkhare are notably androgynous.

In their number and variety, these "firsts" speak for themselves. To be sure, there were many firsts in the rival civilization of Mesopotamia, but rarely in art. Egyptian primacy in this realm suggests the following stark conclusion. In all of Western art there are two main sequences, BE (Before Egyptian, i.e. prehistoric) and E plus (Egyptian and after).