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13 / The Body

Fragment of a wall relief showing the sister of Djehutyhotep
Fragment of a wall relief showing the sister of Djehutyhotep
Artist / Origin Unknown artist, Deir el-Bersha, Egypt
Region: Africa
Date Middle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, ca. 1850 BCE
Material Painted limestone relief
Medium: Sculpture
Dimensions H: 28 ¼ in. (71.5 cm.), W: 12 ¼ (33.5 cm.)
Location The British Museum, London, UK
Credit © British Museum/Art Resource, NY

expert perspective

Deborah VischakLecturer of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University

Fragment of a wall relief showing the sister of Djehutyhotep

» Unknown artist, Deir el-Bersha, Egypt

expert perspective

Deborah Vischak Deborah Vischak Lecturer of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University

The Egyptian system of depicting bodies, of depicting all kinds of images, is very different certainly from most of the Western traditions that we’re familiar with. Understanding the way the body is represented in Egyptian art is the gateway to understanding the entire Egyptian system of representation, especially in two dimensions. The body as it’s represented in relief and painting is put together from different viewpoints. It’s what we call a composite figure. So the different pieces of the body—for example, the torso is seen from the front, the legs are seen from the side, the face is seen in profile, but the eye is seen from the front. So you’ve got this mix of perspectives.

And what is important to understand about that is that the whole idea for the Egyptians behind making images is not to recreate reality in that sort of underlying Western way, which is really about recreating the experience of viewing, that’s the Western tradition, it’s about seeing something by one viewer at one moment in time. And this idea did not resonate for the Egyptians at all. What they’re trying to create is something that is much more eternal. So their representations are not recreations of something that they’ve seen, rather they’re creating an image following on a concept. It’s really much more of a conceptual image system. So when they piece together the body with these different viewpoints, what they’re doing is creating an image that represents body or human figure or person. And it’s an image that communicates the idea of the individual, of the human person, without being concerned with the specifics of one particular person at one place in space and in time. And the nature of the way the body is put together, it allows for a certain amount of flexibility in posing the legs or the arms. Also some certain details in clothing or sort minor things—hairstyle, that kind of thing, jewelry—that are useful for the Egyptians for communicating different aspects of the identity of the figure.

Understanding that kind of fundamental nature of the body in that system then explains the sort of whole Egyptian image system. Why are things represented in the way that they’re represented? Why did they not care about the sort of realistic experience of viewing, the sort of illusion of seeing something on a wall the same way that you’d see it in the world? It just was not something that made sense, and the way the body was depicted, I think, expresses that very clearly.

I think to understand the Egyptian representation of the body the two main issues are conventions, in one sense, and also idealization in the other. The places that you find images of the body in either three-dimensional statuary or in two-dimensional relief and painted images—because these things are functional, there is this idea of convention of being able to repeat over and over again the image because the image, in order to function, has to look the way that it’s supposed to. There is this intentional maintenance of this tradition by the elite people who were the ones who were creating and producing these objects. That they purposefully, over and over and over again, want to have the body look the same way in the images, their objects should look the same way, the monuments should look the same way. They’re purposefully trying to maintain a cultural tradition that argues in the bigger picture for stability and the rightness of the world—and, of course, their place in it. So convention is very important in that regard. But idealization is also very important. And there are ideal versions of a male figure and of a female figure. They tend to be relatively youthful, very fit and strong figures. So that any individual being represented in their tomb or on a stele or an offering to a god is being represented in their best, most perfect form. And that’s what’s valuable rather than recreating what they might actually look like in life.” 

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