A shape that stands tall through history
By Yusuf Arakkal
11th November 2012 12:00 AM
“This is a statue of Mark Antony.” My Egyptian guide and driver Mehdi said.
“How come the nose is broken?”
“Julius Caeser must have broken it,” pointing to the statue in front of the Greco-Roman Museum at Alexandria, Mehdi was implying Mark Antony’s affair with Cleopatra. Apart from affairs and Cleopatra, Egyptian culture and art has a lot to learn from. In 1995 I was on a month-long research trip to the land of pharaohs and pyramids to study the magnificent art of this ancient land. In the mid of a short visit to Cairo, I stood awestruck and mesmerised by the colossal image and mind-boggling shape of the pyramids. From countless pictures and readings about these great works of art I had never realised it to be of this magnitude. It is indeed one of the great wonders of the world. And will remain till eternity.
“Forty centuries look down on you,” Napoleon had told his soldiers, looking at the pyramids during his conquest of Egypt in the 18th century. I do not know how long I stood looking at this spectacle. But, it was then that I decided to come back to Egypt and learn more about the culture and art of the river valley civilisation that gave the world great artistic and cultural treasures. And I understood that I should concentrate my studies at the Cairo Museum and Greco-Roman Museum at Alexandria.
While the discovery of the boy king Tutankhamen’s tomb has yielded over 5000 treasures, including the most celebrated gold burial mask, there are lesser -known art and artefacts that reflect the power of Egyptian artistic tradition. Many burial portraits were made in a medium called the encaustic. Even many modern artists today use this medium to get certain effects, longevity and creative potential. A wax-based preparation, mixed with colours, is as effective as the modern paints, and much more durable. Countless works in encaustic is intact even after almost 200 centuries. A portrait of a boy’s face from a burial chamber demonstrate that the Egyptian figurative approach to profile faces is not a stereotype, but a version of their artistic tradition. This boy’s portrait is full face – frontal view that could compete with the best of European academic portraits.
While the Hieroglyphic surrounded relief’s show figures — human or animal in profile, there are countless frontal faces and figures that demonstrate that the Egyptians used profile as a stylistic factor. Again, there are the great sculpted bodies of many great pharaohs and their concerts that show their understanding of the human body, much before the Greeks began celebrating it. If one looks at the gigantic figure of the pharaoh Remises at Abu Simbel, and the finely-sculpted head of queen Nefertiti, he will realise this. Slightly stylised like our Chola bronzes, these figures speak for the creative and the technical expertise the Egyptians possessed. Tutankhamen’s great gold mask is a fine example of this. The great traveller Ibn Batuta, who explored many continents two centuries before Christopher Columbus, talks about the pyramid as a cone-shaped work of art. Probably the pyramids give an impression of an inverted cone from a far-off distance. Many contemporary sculptors adopt this shape into their work today. After a few years of my research trip, I too did a series of copper sculptures with the conical shape as a reference and inspiration.
At the end of a month I spent amid the creative results of the Egyptian civilisation, I bid adieu to Mehdi and boarded the flight to London for the first auction of Indian contemporary art at the Christies headquarters. And with an artistically rejuvenated mind.
The writer is a renowned artist
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