Saturday, 3 December 2022

NOT A PROPER REVIEW AT ALL OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM’S ‘HIEROGLYPHS - UNLOCKING ANCIENT EGYPT’ EXHIBITION fact it teatures precisely one exhibit, a relief from the Karnak Temple, which depicts the defeat of the Libyans, photographed by my good self which characteristic ineptitude. 

The two figures are the sort of thing we expect to see in Ancient Egyptian art, standard hieratic profile view. Yet that rearing horse deominates the image. And more importantly both sets of its legs are doubled. The motion effect which adds to the sense of it rearing up mid battle.

It’s an effect mostly associated with Futurist art of the early twentieth century, for example Boccioni’s ’The Charge of the Lancers’ (1915, above). This image looks more eye-popping because the effect is used more extensively. In fact everything seems to lead out from the body of that horse, enhanced by the dark-to-pale colour gradation.

While at Karnak Temple the effect is never used anywhere else. It’s perhaps not clearly visible in my hurried photo, but it’s not used on those falling and feeling figures, which are all kept integral. Yet they’re such a jumble, you have to scrutinise the work quite hard to realise they’re not. (An effect possibly heightened by the contrast between them and the neat columns of hieroglyphs.) The whirlygig blur of battle looks very much the intended effect.

Art from this era is usually almost anti-dynamic, it’s impassive, ritualistic. To quote Wikipedia: “Artworks served an essentially functional purpose that was bound with religion and ideology. To render a subject in art was to give it permanence. Therefore, ancient Egyptian art portrayed an idealized, unrealistic view of the world. There was no significant tradition of individual artistic expression since art served a wider and cosmic purpose of maintaining order… It is also very conservative: the art style changed very little over time.” In short, it exists to say ”this is so”.

Here, not so much. A more dynamic art suggests a more volatile world. So how to explain this multi-legged horse? Options include

i) “A useful reminder not to over-generalise over the culture of an ancient civilisation, especially one which went on for so many centuries.”

ii) “It’s interesting, but you can’t extrapolate that much from a single example. For all we know popular reaction could have been befuddlement, and the artist firmly told to count the number of horse’s legs the next time.”

iii) “The answer’s obvious. A Futurist artist had a time machine, duh.”

iv) “Shut up Gavin, no-one cares about this sort of thing apart from you.”

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