Powerpoint like an Egyptian

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Why did ancient Egyptians have two left feet? Ernst Gombrich provides a fascinating answer in ‘The Story of Art’ – to make sure you had two good feet in the afterlife.

The art of the Pharoahs’ is in some senses very realistic. But lack of perspective and ‘side on’ angles can make it seem flat and naive to modern eyes. But that’s because it was governed by very formal rules of representation, scale and geometric placement.

A brief ‘naturalistic’ period, under Tutankhamen’s sun worshipping father, shows Egyptian artists absolutely could do portraiture. But once sun worship was banished, it was back to the formal rules of representation and proportion which lasted for 3000 years.

And why? Because the Egyptian artist was capturing the ‘ideal type’, the ‘essence’ or essential attributes of the person, duck, fish, foot or god portrayed. Thus key features for the afterlife – a full eye and two shoulders or the plumage of a wild fowl – were shifted, twisted, rotated or brought forward to ensure their ‘ideal attributes’ were clearly represented and hence captured and assured – in the version of the person or fowl which persisted into the afterlife.

20120418-195141.jpgEgyptian tomb art was more like designing a powerpoint slide than painting a picture. Placement, the right relative scale and the mix of images, words and sidebars to tell a story were the point. And a bit like ‘cutting and pasting’ onto a powerpoint slide, if necessary, images of birds or fish were ‘pasted’ on top of backgrounds to make sure their key attributes were visible and preserved.

The reason, then, for two left feet is that the ‘arches’ of the foot are more ‘essential’ than the outside – hence two ‘ideal’ feet are portrayed – arches facing out.

20120418-142727.jpgI’d have been laughing in ancient Egypt with my love of powerpoint. But what would the Egyptians have made of clip art? Surely sacrilege. Then as now.

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