Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Understanding Egyptian Frontal Based Art

An artwork is a dialogue between an artist and the viewer.

Sometimes that dialogue needs explanation. Have you ever looked at an Egyptian painting and tried to figure out what is gong on? Perhaps you’ve asked yourself why the figures look so different than our way of drawing?

Part of the reason the people look so different is that they are rendered in what is known as frontal based art, also called frontalism. Rather than attempting to create realistic looking items, the frontal based artist is working more with symbols, showing the most recognizable feature of an item.

A glass, for example, has a round top, two straight sides, and a straight base. It can be rendered in what appears a style Picasso might have used, showing all three qualities at once.

When we look at a figure, we can see the head in side-view; but notice that the eye is rendered as if it were a straight-on view. Here we are dealing with symbols similar to hieroglyphics not realistic body parts. The shoulders are rendered in front view while the torso is actually a 3-quarter side view—the front is a silhouette of a front side view and the back is a back view. The wrist and the bottom curve of the buttocks are 9 squares from the baseline if the arms are at the side. Legs are rendered with the “downstage” leg—the one closest to you—in front. Legs far apart often suggest action. The arms and hands are done in side view—the same direction.

Problems of interpreting clothing can often be blamed on the frontal view. A dress with two straps covering the breasts can actually be rendered with both straps coming toward the center of the torso area, but with what appears to be a bare breast on the front side. [See illustrations below.] A necklace which hangs at center actually appears worn to the side because it is drawn directing in the center of the torso, even though the torso is 3-quarter side view.

My drawing, showing how the torso and necklace are done, is based on a fragment relief of Maya, shown in Geoffrey T. Martin's The Hidden Tombs of Memphis [158].

The Egyptian artist used a grid to create his figures. All items have a baseline which they rest on. The Egyptian canon of art dictated that the body was 18 squares from feet to the hairline and a remaining square for the top of the head. John Legon, in The Egyptian Canon in Art, gives a very complete description of the process.

Sethos I offering Isis a treat. The small birds float in the air above the tray. Because Sethos is pharaoh, he is eye level to the goddess. My drawing is based on a painted relief from A. Rosalie David's The Egyptian Kingdoms: The Making of the Past, [88].

Except for the Amarna art experiment of the XVIII Dynasty, women’s skin was rendered with yellow ochre and men’s with red orchre.

Things resting on top of objects—such as a senet piece on top of a board--are often shown floating above the object. And in this case, the board would be tilted facing the viewer.

Students in my History and Thought of Western Man classes, do a frontal based project where they have to use the principles we’ve discussed and combine them with a modern movie or historical event. Below is one for The Wizard of Oz.

1 comment:

Karen Flowers said...

My 12-year-old daughter is doing a report on Egyptians and I told her about frontal based art. Then I went on the Internet to show her an example. I searched "Egyptian frontal based art" and clicked on the first site that came up and it was yours. Wow, what a small world! This brings my mind back to History and Thought of Western Man from a long, long time ago. You were always such a great teacher! Thanks.