The art of our species

If Neanderthal man created any form of art, no traces of it have yet been found. But with the arrival of modern man, or Homo sapiens sapiens, the human genius for image-making becomes abundantly clear.

In the recesses of caves, people begin to decorate the rock face with an important theme in their daily lives, the bison and reindeer which are their prey as Ice Age hunters. And sculptors carve portable images of another predominant interest of mankind – the swelling curves of the female form, emphasizing the fertility on which the survival of the tribe depends.

Perhaps the most famous of early sculptures is the so-called Venus of Willendorf. Found at Willendorf in Austria, and dating from more than 25,000 years ago, she is only about four inches high. More than 100 fertility figures of this kind have been found in an area reaching from France to southern Russia.

The sculptor of the Willendorf Venus, scraping away with a flint tool at his fragment of limestone, is not engaging in what we would call art. His tiny but profoundly convincing fertility goddess is a religious object. An encampment of mammoth hunters at Gagarino, in the Ukraine, has yielded many such figures. The huts of the Gagarino hunters even have niches in the walls, or little shrines, to accomodate them.

The Egyptian style: from 3100 BC

The first civilization to establish a recognizable artistic style is . This style follows a strange but remarkably consistent convention, by which the feet, legs and head of each human figure are shown in profile but the torso, shoulders, arms and eye are depicted as if from the front.

By this means, it has to be admitted, the artist is able to tackle each separate feature from the easiest angle. It is a convenient convention, and it is used both in paintings and in low-relief sculptures. Often the two are combined, with paint applied to the lightly sculpted figures.

The Egyptian style can be seen fully fledged in one of the earliest sculptures to survive – a relief, on a slate slab, which the pharaoh Narmer commissions in about 3100 BC to celebrate a victory.

The king holds his defeated enemy by the hair and threatens to strike him. The smaller figure on the left carries the king’s sandals. He is smaller not because he is further away, but because he is inferior. Egyptian perspective is essentially hierarchical.

Figures in the round: 3rd – 2nd millennium BC

Some time after 3000 BC it becomes the practice in Egypt for seated statues of royal people and distinguished officials to be placed in their tombs. Prince Rahotep and his wife Nofret are entombed in about 2500 BC. He has held a high government post and Nofret, apparently a favourite with the pharaoh, also had an official position in the palace.

Their painted images and their glittering eyes of quartz are so realistic that the people who eventually unearth them – in 1871 – are reported to have fled in terror.

More humble figures are also placed in Egyptian royal tombs, to provide familiar services in the next world. They often have an astonishingly life-like quality. Women kneel to grind corn for the royal bread. Among the male servants a scribe is a regular attendant.

These scribes provide a fascinating insight into the clerical methods of the time. Seated with crossed legs, the writer’s brief skirt is stretched tight between his thighs. On this surface he rests his papyrus, holding the rolled up part of the scroll in his left hand. His right hand, with pen between finger and thumb, is poised to jot down the next instruction.

The sphinx: c.2500 BC

The most colossal of the ancient world is the Egyptian sphinx. The great lion with a human face is carved from the centre of a limestone quarry, after the tons of stone which once surrounded it have been hacked and dragged away to form the greatest of the three nearby pyramids, that of the pharaoh Khufu.

The sphinx lies guarding the pyramids at Giza. Its face is believed to bear the features of Khafre, son of Khufu, whose own pyramid is only slightly more modest than that of his father.

Akhenaten and : c.1340 BC

The sculptures found in the house of Thutmose, court sculptor at Tell el Amarna, reveal the level of realism achieved in 14th-century Egypt – inspired by the instruction of the pharaoh, Akhenaten, that the artists should aim for truthfulness.

The best known are the various heads of Akhenaten’s wife, Nefertiti. One in particular (now in Berlin) has become perhaps the most famous of ancient Egyptian sculptures.

Our knowledge of Egyptian sculpture and decorative art has been greatly increased by a lucky accident. In about 1324 BC a young pharaoh dies. His reign, lasting some nine years, has been insignificant. The main event under his rule has been the reversal of the religious reforms of Akhenaten, his predecessor. So his name would be little known but for one unusual detail. His tomb escapes, almost entirely, the attention of the grave robbers.

As a result he is now, more than 3000 years later, the best known of the pharaohs. The tomb, when finally opened, proves to be an astonishing treasure trove of Egyptian artefacts. The young man is Tutankhamen (see the Tomb of Tutankhamen).

The most evocative single object in the tomb of Tutankahamen is the gilded throne, with its apparently intimate scene set into the back; Tutankhamen’s queen, Ankhesenamen, tenderly anoints him on the shoulder, as if perhaps for his coronation.

But the jumble of goods in this treasure trove also includes solid gold heads of the king inlaid with precious stones, full-length figures of him in various guises, dramatic and life-like animals, detailed alabaster boats and spectacular reliefs on a gilt shrine, together with countless other objects which demonstrate both the artistry and the technical skill of Egyptian sculpture.

Abu Simbel: c.1250 BC

When the pharaoh Ramses II decides to create a great monument to himself at the first cataract of the Nile (as if to dominate the defeated southern province of Cush), he conceives the earliest and probably the most impressive of all rock-cut shrines adorned with statuary.

At Abu Simbel a sloping sandstone rock rises high above the Nile. Ramses’ sculptors and labourers are given the task of hacking into the rock face – to expose first four colossal seated statues of the pharaoh himself (each some 65 ft high), to be followed, as they cut further back, by the flat facade against which these great sculptures are to be seen.

With the imposing front of the temple thus achieved, the next stage is even more remarkable. A tall rectangular cavity is cut into the centre of the facade at ground level. As the work of excavation continues, this space will become the massive doorway to an interior chamber (yet the imitation lintel of the door does not even reach to the knees of the four seated statues).

When the work is finally done, three connecting chambers recede behind this door – together stretching 185 ft into the hillside. A corridor through the first great hall is formed by four pairs of pillars, left in place to support the rock above. Each pillar, 30 ft high, is carved as a standing image of Ramses in Nubian dress.

The walls behind the pillars are carved and painted with scenes of Ramses in triumph. He is represented in several military campaigns, with special emphasis on his gallant behaviour in his chariot at the battle of Kadesh. He and his sons are seen offering Nubian, Hittite and Syrian prisoners as sacrifices to Amen-Re.

A second chamber leads on into the third and inner sanctuary where Ramses sits as a god beside Amen-Re. On two days of the year, February 22 and October 22, the rays of the rising sun penetrate to the very back of the temple to fall upon these two central figures.

In the 1960s this extraordinary temple is threatened by Egypt’s construction of the Aswan dam. The waters of the Nile, rising behind the dam, will completely submerge Ramses’ spectacular piece of self-promotion.

A major international effort organized by UNESCO saves the situation. The temple is cut from the rock and is sliced into pieces to be reassembled on the hillside above the intended level of the water. In an extraordinarily reversal of techniques, a space originally achieved by a process of scooping out is now preserved as a free-standing structure.

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