Pablo Picasso. Las Meninas. After Velázquez

Imagine a fourteen-year old aspiring artist quizzically examining an incredibly life-like painting that once had the foreboding inscription below it – “Obra culminate de la pintura universal,” which in English translates to “the culminating work of world art.” This is how Pablo Picasso was introduced to one of the most influential paintings in the world, Diego Velázquez´s Las Meninas (Maids of Honor). In numerous works of Picasso, remnants of ideas from Velázquez’s Las Meninas can be found. Picasso even devoted an entire series of paintings to variations of Las Meninas and its central characters in the late 1950s. To better understand the effect of Las Meninas on Pablo Picasso, we must first place the original Velázquez painting in an historical context as Picasso might have seen it. We must also examine the events surrounding and effecting the Las Meninas variations. Once that foundation is completed, we can then examine the message that Picasso tried to convey in these variations. After all, Las Meninas was the focus of Picasso´s works sixty years after his original viewing of the masterpiece. It must have made quite an impact on this fourteen-year-old aspiring artist.

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Las Meninas did not only have an impact on little Pablo Picasso, but on the entire art world. Over the three hundred and fifty years since its painting, many different schools of thought regarding art have come and gone, yet they all proclaim Las Meninas as a masterpiece. A realist proclaims the painting because of its stark depiction of reality. A critic stares at the painting and can uncover new details that were previously overlooked. A deconstructionist examines the unending levels of meaning encountered in Las Meninas, and is overcome by the painting’s complexity. The Marxist loves the painting because of its subtle contrasts between rich and poor. The feminist praises the painting because of its depiction of female power residing in the infanta. Las Meninas is a painting for everyone – especially for the greatest Spanish painter of our time – Pablo Picasso. Who knows what he thought?

Las Meninas was first viewed by Pablo Picasso when he was fourteen years old. This was a pivotal time in his life – he was still seeking purpose as well as feeling out his artistic boundaries. A few months after seeing Las Meninas, his seven-year old blond sister María de la Concepción died from diphtheria. Picasso and his family (especially his father) never really recovered from their loss. This loss would follow Picasso for the rest of his life. In 1897, at the age of 16 – less than a year after the death of his sister, he produced his first sketch concerning Las Meninas characters – María Agustina (the head maid) and María Margarita (the infanta). It is no coincidence that both the infanta and his sister were blond. Yet, his greatest works directly concerning the infanta and Las Meninas were decades away.

When Picasso started to produce serious reproductions of Velázquez´s work, he was seventy-five years old. Picasso was distant to some in the art world because of the fame of his earlier works. Contemporaries were accusing Picasso of losing his touch – he was no longer the great Spanish painter that everyone had once thought him to be. These critics claimed he was merely a great painter who had left his best years behind. In the art world, it is not uncommon for a great master to be reviled in later stages of their lives. One critic summed up the situation by saying, “The late works of great masters, which come about at the period style of a subsequent generation, tower over the flow of history as solitudes, inaccessible to the context of time.” But, Picasso still had something to prove. In his early years, Picasso was uncomfortable taking on such a “lofty” Spanish painter as Velázquez. As he approached old age, he decided to go down that road.

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After he completed the first and most widely recognized variation of Las Meninas (which has been discussed in a previous essay by this author), Picasso turned his gaze towards María Margarita, the infanta. This fixation was not chosen lightly. The age of seventy-five was a symbolically important one for Picasso because Picasso’s father had died at the age of seventy-five. This period of Picasso´s life brought back visions of his own mortality, which inevitably evoked memories of his sister´s death. By looking at the Velázquez variations of the late 1950s, the imagery of his young blond sister is clearly contained within the imagery of the blond infanta. There is yet another figure evoked by this infanta imagery – Picasso´s daughter Paloma, who was roughly the same age as both his late sister and the infanta at the time these paintings were conceived. Over a span of two furious weeks in late 1957, Picasso devoted fifteen separate paintings to this infanta image. Picasso depicted the infanta in a variety of ways – each vastly different from all of the others. After concluding these works, Picasso briefly turned his artistic attention to an entirely different subject – pigeons.

Pigeons. What a curious diversion. When Picasso donated his entire Las Meninas series to the Museu Barcelona in 1971, he included this series of paintings and mandated that they be shown with the rest of the Velázquez variations. For a period of about a week, Picasso painted the pigeons outside his studio porch with the same zeal he had when he depicted the infanta. Several corollaries arise between the Velázquez variations and the pigeon imagery – that of Picasso´s distortion of reality and the imagery of a window separating segments of the painting. Because Picasso was focusing solely on the infanta for the prior two weeks, he had disregarded the window and light sources so prevalent in Las Meninas. In these pigeon pictures, Picasso focused on the pigeons gathered outside his studio window. A case can be made that the window motif is Picasso´s distinction between here and there (and hence the distortion of reality) – “Here, I am painting an image – there, these creatures are going on with their merry lives unaware of what I am doing.” This same analysis can be made with Las Meninas – Velázquez painted the royal family and their maids, but the other figures in the painting are seemingly oblivious to Velázquez´s presence. After concluding this seemingly incongruous series of paintings, Picasso returned his main focus to Velázquez and Las Meninas.

After his brief diversion with the pigeons, Picasso painted one final image of the infanta by herself – full of rich colors and an amalgam of the previous three weeks´ exploration. Picasso then returned his focus to the entirety of Las Meninas. The infanta remains the central image in these works, but a mix of the other Las Meninas characters now surrounds her. Picasso painted six more canvases of Las Meninas variations in the next two weeks. Each of these canvases was approximately 50″ by 60″ in size – an incredible output for such a short span of time. Within these variations, some characters from the Velázquez original are omitted. On others, the characters are moved or emphasized in a decidedly un-Velázquez-like manner. The full cast of characters is present in one of the works, but the entire background takes on a radically different Cubist style. On yet another, the background changes to a fusion of colors and shapes to create yet another perspective on the work. Picasso´s interpretations of this work were seemingly endless. But at this point, Picasso gradually began the process of concluding his Las Meninas variations.

After these large paintings were completed, Picasso´s interest with Las Meninas subsided. Over the next few months, he painted another twenty-four paintings related to Las Meninas, but none were of the evident passion of these previous works. When he concluded the series, Pablo Picasso had painted approximately fifty-eight paintings concerning Velázquez´s Las Meninas. By creating so many variations of a single work, Picasso let us, his audience, glimpse into the workings of his inner mind. By way of Picasso´s variations, we can see how he interpreted Las Meninas.

By examining these variations in detail (especially the imagery containing the infanta), a central theme arises – innocence. Innocence is one of those weird catch-all phrases that defies interpretation. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition defines innocence as:

1. The state, quality, or virtue of being innocent, as:
1. Freedom from sin, moral wrong, or guilt through lack of knowledge of evil.
2. Guiltlessness of a specific legal crime or offense.
3. Freedom from guile, cunning, or deceit; simplicity or artlessness.
4. Lack of worldliness or sophistication; naiveté.
5. Lack of knowledge or understanding; ignorance.
6. Freedom from harmfulness; inoffensiveness.
2. One that is innocent.
3. Botany. See blue-eyed Mary (a type of flower).

It is no wonder that Pablo Picasso had such a hard time dealing with this notion of innocence in his works. The dictionary claims eight possible meanings for this one word. How could he possibly handle all of these meanings in one painting? The answer was that he could not – remember that Picasso painted almost fifteen paintings of the infanta. He was looking for something that he could not easily define. However, in a greater sense, all of these definitions do in fact define the numerous images of the infanta. She is free from sin. She knows no wrong. She lacks cunning. She is ignorant of her world. Those who love her shelter her. But, above all, the infanta epitomizes the notion of innocence. There is no better ideal of the word innocent than Picasso´s depictions of the infanta.

However, we must be reminded that it is futile to believe that this innocence can last. And, this is the reason for the image of the child. The image of the infanta in a plain white dress expressly provokes this sense of innocence and purity. We must recall that childhood is that precious time before our innocence is taken away by society. Children can not perform any wrong. They are perfect. And, it is the dream of all parents for their children to remain that way throughout time immemorial. Yet, it is only a mirage. Something happens to the children – they grow up and mature. The children gain something even more precious than innocence – life. And, another issue arises – the inevitable cessation of life – death. This was as much a central idea to Picasso in these Las Meninas variations as was innocence.

When Picasso created these works, he was constantly being reminded of his own mortality, and, hence, of his sister´s death. Picasso also had the benefit of wisdom and experience, something he lacked when he first saw Las Meninas as a child. It was this experience which finally allowed him to begin to discover his meaning of the original Velázquez work. For a period of a few months, he was compelled to create images of Velázquez´s infanta. He was obsessed by it. This obsession overcame Picasso. Some inner forced him to draw these paintings. In this way, his personal interpretations finally came to light. But, Picasso knew that his life was only temporary, so he put his ideas on canvas so that others in the future could examine his ideas. Through these variations, Picasso has preserved the infanta and his notion of innocence and purity forever. It was his legacy – his crowning masterpiece. It could never grow old unlike its flawed creator.

The question remains as to why Picasso created so many different versions of the infanta. The answer lies in Picasso´s quest for the perfect innocent child. When he started, he did not know exactly what that singular perfect image was, but he had a starting point with Velázquez´s infanta mixed in with his visualization of his sister. Picasso began to search for the perfect image through his work. This is where the relationship between the pigeon series and the infanta imagery becomes clear. When Picasso painted the pigeon imagery, he had already discovered what he was searching for. Instead of immediately concluding the infanta imagery, he took a brief break from his obsession of the infanta, and later returned to create that one final image of the infanta encompassing his idea of perfection and innocence. After that point, he did not paint the infanta by herself again, but went on to create variations of Las Meninas, which incorporated his ideal infanta into the larger piece. After so many years, Pablo Picasso had finally begun to understand Las Meninas and was able to express it in his works.

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Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley (7 April 1939 – 15 June 1992) was an Australian artist. One of the most well known Australian painters of the 20th century, he is collected in most Australian galleries. He had many shows in his career, and travelled extensively.

Career

Early years

Whiteley was born in Sydney, where he started drawing very early in his life. While a teenager, he painted on weekends at Bathurst and Sydney with such works as The Soup Kitchen which he did in 1958. In 1960, Whiteley won a Travelling Scholarship from the Italian Government, and moved to London. One of the works he submitted to win the scholarship was done in images which were slightly abstracted in brownish colours called Sofala; he had painted this in 1956. After winning the scholarship he travelled around Europe, visiting Italy, France and England. He arrived in London at a time when many Australian artists were becoming popular in England. During this period, there was a fascination with Australian art there. Australian artists Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan and Russell Drysdale had become well known and were exhibiting in London, as well as many other Australian artists who were also there. It helped him that Australian artists were looked on favourably at this time by the English public. After meeting the director of the Whitechapel gallery, he was included in the group show ‘Survey of Recent Australian Painting’ where his Untitled Red painting was bought by the Tate gallery. This made him the youngest artist to have ever been bought by the Tate, and it was this fact which helped him to have even more success, such as when he won the first prize for Australia at the Biennale de la Jeunesse in Paris. During the next few years he had much contact with artists in London and in travels to other parts of the world, and it was these friendships and contacts which helped him to become an accepted artist.

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New York

In 1967 Whiteley won a scholarship to study and work in New York. He won this Harkness Foundation Scholarship to New York, and while there he met other artists and musicians while he stayed at the Chelsea Hotel. His first impression of New York was shown in the painting First Sensation of New York City which showed streets with fast moving cars, street signs, hot dog vendors, and tall buildings. He was very much influenced by the peace movement at the time and came to believe that if he painted one huge painting which would advocate peace, then the Americans would withdraw their troops from Vietnam. It was an extremely ambitious aim, to change the opinion of an entire nation based on one picture. But still fairly young, Whiteley was idealistic and caught up in the great peace movements of the sixties, with the protests against America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam. The work was called The American Dream, and was an enormous work comprising many panels, and using painting and collage and anything else he could find to put on the panels. One way that America influenced him is the scale of the works. The large size of artworks painted by contemporary America artists there possibly made Whiteley wish to paint enormous works such as this one. It took up a great deal of his time and effort to paint, taking up about a year of working on it full time. It consisted of eighteen wooden panels, with a series which started with a peaceful dreamlike serene ocean scene on one side, that worked its way to destruction and chaos in a mass of lighting, red colours and explosions on the other side. It was his comment on the direction the world would be headed and his response to a seemingly pointless war which could end in a nuclear holocaust. Many of the ideas from the work may have come from his experiences with alcohol, marijuana and other drugs. During this time, like many others, Whiteley experimented with drugs. He believes that many of his ideas have come from these experiences, and he often used drugs as a way of bringing the ideas from his subconscious. He sometimes took more than his body could handle, and had to be admitted to hospital for alcohol poisoning twice. Around him at the Chelsea Hotel, other artists and musicians took heroin, which Whiteley did not take at that time. The painting which was finally produced was made of many different elements, using collage, photography and even flashing lights, with a total length of nearly 22 metres. However Marlborough-Gerson, his gallery, refused to show this work which he had been working on for about a year, and he was so distraught that he decided to leave New York, and he ‘fled’ to Fiji in the South Pacific, similar to how the last panel of the end of The American Dream showed an island paradise, Whiteley would now seek refuge in one himself.

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Fiji

Whiteley made paintings in Fiji of the people, similar to the way that Gauguin had travelled to Tahiti to paint native people and culture in the nineteenth century. Whiteley painted the native people of Fiji, such as in Fiji Head – to a creole lady which incorporates text as well as a downward looking portrait. During his time in Fiji, he started painting birds, which were a source of great beauty for him which he enjoyed painting. The birds which he painted could represent a way of escaping from sometimes violent feelings. He had a violent nature that others noticed. Whiteley had experience in painting animals from his zoo series in London. A stylised image of a bird he painted in Orange Fruit Dove Fiji which shows the bird looking towards fruit on a plant, while it is sitting on its nest with eggs shown below. The bird is bright and striking, with red which could represent blood shown on its body and on its beak. He must have been thinking about Gauguin’s experience in Tahiti, for he painted Gauguin which showed an image of a daydreaming Gauguin against a backdrop of island scenery. He later developed further works based on the art of other artists. In the early 1970s he returned to Australia, an established and collected artist.

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Appropriations

Whiteley experimented with styles based around the art of Van Gogh, using portraits based on Vincent Van Gogh’s self portraits, such as Vincent. After Whiteley found a book about Van Gogh on the floor of the church in Bathurst when he was very young, it changed his perception of the world around him. One image which uses Van Gogh’s style in a unique way is Night Cafe. He has taken the Van Gogh painting and stretched the lines of the room to a single vanishing point, creating an image which appears fast moving and extremely vibrant and dynamic. Another work where imagery is borrowed from the art of another artist is in Rembrandt, where he painted a large somewhat gloomy looking portrait of the Dutch master.

Alchemy

Part of his work Alchemy was featured on the cover of the Dire Straits live album Alchemy although it had the addition of a guitar with lips held by a hand. The original painting, done between 1972 and 1973 was composed of many different elements and on many different panels, similar to The American Dream. While the idea of the massive work on many different panels had developed in America, this new work was Australian. It had many curved and illustrious shapes, sexual imagery and giant letters IT on one of the panels. Just looking at the elements from which he composed the work shows the wide variety in materials he used; everything from feathers and part of a birds nest to a glass eye, shell, plugs and ‘brain’. It has been regarded as a self-portrait, a giant outpouring of energy and ideas brought forth over a long period of time. He did not even know what it would look like when it was finished. Many of the panels are golden, referring to the process of alchemy. Others are full of tiny drawings and little details showing forms, many of which are based on the human figure, such as ears, hands, body parts and sexual imagery. The work refers to transformation, such as with the mythical transformation of ordinary metal to gold, Whiteley is possibly trying to say something about his personality, that he wanted to change away from various addictions, but was not able to. He is also talking about looking at what does not exist.

Sydney harbour and landscapes

Whiteley loved painting Sydney Harbour views in the 1970s such in his painting Interior with time past, which shows an interior and exterior view starting with a room that leads through open windows to the harbour full of boats outside. The table in the front of the room close to the viewer has minutely decorated vases and small objects, while a drawing on the left and a sculpture to the extreme right show how Whiteley often used erotic images in his works. He painted a view of his friend Patrick White as a rock or a headland in Headland, because he had told Whiteley that in the next life he would like to come back as a rock. Whiteley painted other images of the Australian landscape, including a view of the south coast of New South Wales after it had been raining called South Coast After the Rain. He did paintings of the area around Bathurst, Oberon and also Marulan, all in New South Wales. He painted abstracted images of bush scenes such as The Bush and also images which resulted from experimentation with various drugs, such as alcohol in the humorous Self Portrait after three bottles of wine.

Success with Archibald and other prizes

In the late seventies Brett Whiteley had great success with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, winning all of their major prizes twice. These were the Archibald Prize, Wynne Prize and Sulman Prizes, considered some of the most prestigious, if not the most prestigious art prizes in Australia.

His wins were:

1976

1. Archibald Prize: Self Portrait in the Studio

2. Sulman Prize: Interior with Time Past

1977

Wynne Prize: The Jacaranda Tree (On Sydney Harbour)

1978

1. Archibald Prize: Art, Life and the other thing

2. Sulman Prize: Yellow Nude

3. Wynne Prize: Summer at Carcoar

1978 was the only time that all three prizes have gone to the same person, so this was quite an achievement. He was at the peak of his career. His first Archibald win, Self Portrait in the Studio shows a view of his studio at Lavender Bay overlooking the harbour, with his reflection in a mirror shown at the bottom of the picture, while the painting is primarily a look at his studio, shown in deep, bluish tones. As with many of his works, the viewer is led deeper into the picture with minute detail, and a view of Sydney harbour is on the left which establishes the location of the picture. These paintings along with some of the other works, show Whiteley’s love for ultramarine blue and for collecting objects and for wide expanse of harbour. His second Archibald win, Art, Life and the other thing, again shows his willingness to experiment with different mediums such as photography and collage, and his respect for art history, including an image of the famous 1943 William Dobell portrait of Joshua Smith, which won a court case against people who claimed it was a caricature, not a portrait. He also experiments with warping and manipulating a straight self portrait and altering and distorting the image. He later won the Wynne Prize again, in 1984 with The South Coast After Rain

Difficult pleasure

He was the subject of a hour long ABC television documentary called Difficult Pleasure directed by Don Featherstone in 1989, which showed him talking about many of his main works, and his recent works such as ones done on a month long trip to Paris, one of his last overseas trips. He also showed his large T-shirt collection, and talks about his sculpture, which he said is an aspect that many people do not take seriously about his work. Difficult pleasure is how he describes painting, or creating art: Art is an argument between what a thing looks like and what it means.

Later years

Whiteley became increasingly dependent on alcohol and became addicted to heroin leading to bouts of schizophrenia.Whiteley’s work output began a steep decline, although its market value continued to climb. He made several attempts to dry out and get off drugs completely, all ultimately unsuccessful. In 1989, he divorced Wendy, whom he had always credited as his ‘muse’, and on June 15, 1992 he died of a heroin overdose alone in a motel in Thirroul, north of Wollongong, New South Wales.

In 1999 Brett Whiteley’s painting The Jacaranda Tree (1977) which had won the Wynne Prize, sold for $1,982,000, a record for a modern Australian painter. Before this, his previous highest selling work was The Pond at Bundanon for $649,500

The paintings are the excellent portrayal of the events and scenes that we see around us. The painters are the best cameras of the world. They reproduce many different types of pictures. They even draw imaginary pictures that do not exist in this world. We tend to use both thinned oil paints and dense oil paints. Masterpieces can be dyed more than once, but each time it may be different from the existing paintings

Pizza Hut – Pizza Box

Please vote on my latest pizza box design: Pizza Hut – Pizza Box

Henrie the Pizza Box

Christo Vladimirov Javacheff

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude Denat de Guillebon respectively, are a married couple who collaborate in creating environmental installation art. Their works, all credited under the name Christo and Jeanne-Claude, are massive and visually magnificent projects.

Although their art is largely controversial due to their size and scale, Christo and Jeanne-Claude insist that their art does not contain a hidden message or agenda. Their aim for their art, they said, is to present a different way of looking at landscapes that have become familiar to the general populace, as well as to make the world look more beautiful. Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work was described by art critic David Bourdon as “revelation through concealment.”

The first project undertaken by the couple was Dockside Packages, done at Cologne Harbor in 1961. It was a temporary artwork that involved stacking barrels and covering them with cloth. The exhibition of Dockside Packages lasted for two weeks and happened simultaneously with an exhibition at Haro Lauhus Gallery, also in Cologne.

After Dockside Packages, Christo and Jeanne-Claude became involved in various outdoor wrapping projects. Among these notable projects are:

The Air Package they created for Documenta 4 in Kassel, Germany in 1968, which is an inflated structure erected without a skeleton. It was the largest structure ever created thus.


The Running Fence, a 40-kilometer veiled fence constructed from steel posts and steel cables. The veiled fence ran across the landscape of the Sonoma and Marin Counties in California and led to the sea.
The veiling of the Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament, in 1995. The project was viewed by more than five million people before the building was unveiled.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude met in 1958, when Christo was commissioned to do a portrait of Jeanne-Claude’s mother, who was the wife of the influential General Jacques de Guillebon. The two share a birthday, June 13, 1935. It was described that in the partnership of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Jeanne-Claude handles the publicity and the logistics of their projects while Christo makes the final decisions in the creative department.

Photos of other Christo works

Julian Opie

Well, yet another artist I have discovered, Julian Opie. I really enjoyed browsing his website and looking at the simplicity of his work. You can have some fun with some screensaver downloads he lets you take and if you are interested in seeing his works on exhibition then he will be showing in the following:

Lisson Gallery
London 15 Oct – 14 Nov 2008 Solo Show
MAK
Vienna, Austria 11 June – 21 Sept 2008 Solo Show
Mito Tower
Tokyo, Japan 19 July – 5 Oct 2008 Solo Show
Mie Prefecture Museum
Japan 14 Feb – 13 April 2008 Still Motion Touring Group Show
National Museum of Art Osaka
Osaka, Japan 29 April – 15 June 2008 Still Motion Touring Group Show
Tokyo Metropolitan
Tokyo, Japan 23 Aug – 12 Oct 2008 Still Motion Touring Group Show 2007
Phoenix Museum of Art
Arizona, US Permanent Installation Julian & Suzanne walking, 2007

Article provided by Grove Art Online www.groveart.com

English sculptor, painter, printmaker and installation artist. He studied at Goldsmiths‘ College (1979–82) under Michael Craig-Martin, for whom he briefly worked as an assistant, and emerged as an influential figure on the British art scene in the 1980s, with a highly inventive series of painted metal sculptures. These humorous and playful sculptures combined a loosely painted imagery with steel shapes, as in the case of This One Took Ages to Make (1983; New York, Mr and Mrs A. Safir priv. col., see 1994 exh. cat., p.15), representing a red typewriter supported by the loose pages that fall from it. Towards the end of the 1980s his sculptures became larger, more austere and minimal, and were often based on a relationship between art and architecture. As his work developed it dealt increasingly with the exploration of visual and spatial experience, often with reference to digital simulation. Imagine You are Walking (1–18) (acrylic on wood, 1993; London, Lisson Gal., see 1994 exh. cat., pp. 96–7), comprises 18 neutrally painted images of the interior of a computer-generated maze. The title invites the viewer to project himself into the various configurations, in themselves an approximation of basic cognitive processes. In a related series, Imagine You are Driving (acrylic on wood, glass and aluminium, 12 parts, 1993; London, Lisson Gal., see 1994 exh. cat., pp. 106–9), images simulate the bland, hypnotic experience of motorway driving. An autonomous, purified idealism is underlined by alienation, suggesting a dystopic side of modernist architecture and planning and the human failure of a technological modelling of experience. Opie’s exploration of cognition also takes the form of architectural model-making, in which he constructs bland generic models of building typologies, such as castles or churches. These were intended to reflect a disengaged and superficial emotional response to the outside world; such a response could equally be one of numb indifference or innocent wonder. In 1995 Opie was awarded the Sargent Fellowship at the British School in Rome.

Introduction to Egyptian Art

I recently visite the Ashmolean in Oxford, and particularly enjoyed the section on Egypt. It wasn’t the mummies or the satues that attracted my attention but the hundreds of tiny statuettes and amulets, in beautiful turquoise colors that really got my blood pumping. It is beacause of these I was inspired to start a new series of paintings which I have named Nefertiti.

Ueret-ma-a-neferu-Ra Mark Andrews

The earliest Egyptian art is very different from that of the pyramids and temples of the Pharaonic period. As early as the eighth millennium BC, the first inhabitants of the Nile Valley began to make engraved drawings on the cliffs, particularly in Upper Egypt and Nubia. They depicted the fundamentals of their lives, from wild game and hunting scenes in the earlier times to river boats and herds of cattle in the early Neolithic period. The art of the Predynastic period has survived mainly in the form of small carved stone and ivory grave goods, together with pottery vessels, placed alongside the deceased in simple pit burials. The small votive figures of people and animals include many female statuettes made of pottery and ivory, whose exaggerated sexual characteristics suggest that they probably related to early fertility cults.

Some of the painted scenes on pottery vessels continue, during the Predynastic period, to reflect the prehistoric rock-carvings, while others begin to display the styles and preoccupations of the Dynastic period. In the final stages of the Predynastic period, a range of unusual ceremonial artifacts, including maces, palettes and ivory handled flint knives, began to play an important role in the emerging religious ritual and social hierarchy. Many of the more elaborate mace heads and palettes, such as those of the kings named Scorpion and Narmer, were discovered in a deposit of the temple at Hierakonpolis, and though the archaeological circumstances of their discovery are poorly documented, they were apparently meant as votive offerings. Their carved decoration appears to summarize the important events of the year in which they were offered to the god. However, it is unclear whether any of the scenes depicting historical events are real, or simply generalized representations of myth and ritual. In fact, this would be a problem with Egyptian art throughout the ages.

A number of references on ancient Egypt insinuate that the Egyptians had no concept of the term, art. Indeed, we know of no word from the ancient Egyptian language that exactly conforms to our abstract use of the word. They did have words for their creations that we today regard as examples of Egyptian art, such as statues, stelas and tombs, but we have no reason to believe that these words necessarily included an aesthetic dimension in their meaning.

Though the ancient Egyptians built and decorated their monuments, and cut their statues first and foremost for religious functionality, this does not mean that the Egyptians were not aware of and did not aim for an aesthetic content. To represent was, in a way, to create, and Egyptian representation in both two and three dimensions was meant to create images that would function as a meaningful part of the cult of the gods and the dead.

Statues were objects in which deities could manifest themselves, while images of the dead ensured their survival in the next world and formed a point of contact between this and the next domains, where the deceased could receive the offerings of the living. Depictions of temple cult ceremonies ensured their enactment for all time, and portrayals of offering goods meant that  these items would be available in the next world. Furthermore, images of protective deities found in houses, on furniture and made into amulets created a powerful shield against the malign forces of the universe.

Most of what we see of ancient Egyptian art, at museums or in books, are pieces that appeal to modern aesthetic tastes. Yet they represent only a selection of surviving Egyptian material and are usually pieces produced under royal patronage. For each of these pieces, there are many, many others collecting dust in museum reserve collections that are not so finely made. These latter items may demonstrate poor workmanship, unbalanced compositions, awkward proportions or clumsy execution, but they were came from the more common Egyptians. Though these items lack the artistic quality of the more accomplished works, they must have still been thought to have functioned for the benefit of their owners.

Hence, we must ask ourselves why those of power sought out the best artists, if not for their superior artistic abilities. And we must also question Egyptologists who tell us that art completely surrounded Egyptian religion, for it did not, nor may it have always served a specific function. We find, in tombs of common Egyptians, sometimes intricate scenes of daily life that seemingly have really very little mortuary functionality, but we also find designs on pottery and other items  that today we would call art, and appear to have no further function than to adorn the pottery, making it more appealing. Indeed, while the ancient Egyptians may not have had an abstract word to denote art in general, they did appreciate fine designs and well decorated objects.

However, it should also be pointed out that artists in ancient Egypt were very different than their modern counterparts. In ancient Egyptian society, conformity and not individualism was encouraged, and there was hardly a place for an artist with a personal vision that broke the accepted norms. In fact, Egyptian artists usually worked in teams and according to strict guidelines, even though their works might be highly regarded. This does not mean that artists could not experiment and innovate within certain limits.

Many of the fundamentals of Egyptian art were established at the very beginning of Egyptian history and changed little over time. Subject matter also remained relatively unchanged over long periods of time. However, Egyptian art did not remain completely static over the three thousand years of pharaonic history. Despite the limited repertory of subject matter, Egyptian artists valued variation and avoided producing exact copies of the same forms.

To understand most of the Egyptian artwork that we see in museums and books, we must understand that it was produced by elite Egyptians, mostly for specific functions, and that it was an integral part of their world view. It is important that we understand the purpose of the artwork, or the concepts that shaped it, because a lack of such information has often led people to unfavorably compare it to the art of other cultures. For example, while the ancient Egyptians produced sculptures that were intricately detailed and lifelike in many ways, they never turned the body and twisted it through space as we find in classical Greek statuary. Egyptian artists sometimes got left and right “muddled, and never seem to have discovered the rules of geometric perspective as European artists did in the Renaissance. In fact, such shortcomings had little if anything to do with the ability of the artists, and everything to do with the purpose for which they were producing their art. Egyptian art was not intended to merely imitate or reflect reality, but to replace and perpetuate it. Hence, for example, the religious ritual known as “the opening of the mouth” was not just performed by Egyptian funerary priest on the mummy of the deceased, but also on his or her statuary.

Egyptian art was concerned above all with ensuring the continuity of the universe, the gods, the king and the people. The artists therefore depicted things not as they saw them but as idealized symbols intended to be more significant and enduring than was otherwise possible in the real world. The best, most inspired Egyptian art therefore blends the real with the ideal.

The essential elements of art during the Old Kingdom were the funerary sculpture and painted reliefs of the royal family and the provincial elite. One of the most impressive statues to come from this period is the diorite figure of the seated Khafra, builder of the second pyramid at Giza,. On the simplest level, the statue is a portrait of a powerful individual, but is also made up of symbols that relate to the general role of the pharaoh. His head and neck are physically embraced by the wings of a hawk representing the protective god, Horus, who was also the divine counterpart of the mortal ruler. His throne is decorated on either side with a complex design consisting of the hieroglyph meaning “union” tied up with the tendrils of the plants of Upper and Lower Egypt, all of which symbolizes the unified state over which he ruled. In the same manner, an alabaster statue of the 6th Dynasty ruler Pepi I has the rear of the throne carved to imitate a serekh with Horus perched on the top.

After the Old Kingdom, centralized power within Egypt declined into what we refer to as the First Intermediate Period. This decline in power resulted in a period when provincial workshops at sites such as el-Mo’alla and Gebelein began to create distinctive funerary decoration and equipment rather than being influenced by the artists at the royal court, as they were earlier during the Old Kingdom and later during the Middle Kingdom.

During the Middle Kingdom, Egyptian art is exemplified both by the fragments of reliefs from the royal pyramid complexes at Dahshur, el-Lisht, el-Lahun and Hawara, and by the spacious tombs of the governors buried at Beni Hassan in Middle Egypt. In the latter, the traditional scenes of the deceased receiving offerings or hunting and fishing in the marshes are joined by large depictions of wrestling and warfare, perhaps copied from Old Kingdom royal prototypes.

The history of the Middle Kingdom is very much characterized by a tension between the artistic styles of the various provincial sites and the styles of the royal workshops at Itjtawy, the new capital established near el-Lisht. Only by the late Middle Kingdom does the distinctive provincial styles become eclipsed by the art of the royal workshops..

After the Middle Kingdom, Egypt was ruled for a period of time by Asiatics, who gained control of a considerable area of the country. The works of art surviving from this phase show that the foreign rulers simply re-used and copied traditional Egyptian sculptures and reliefs in order to strengthen their claims to the throne.

After these foreign rulers were expelled, Egypt entered one of it’s most grand periods, the New Kingdom. The grand art of this period actually varied considerably so that we have the very formal art found in the great temples such as Karnak and Luxor, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, and the private artisans’ tombs at Deir el-Medina, with their intimate details. Art during this period also varied because of radical religious changes, such as the Amarna period which resulted in a dramatic change in art styles..

After the New Kingdom, the rapidly changing artistic styles of the first millennium BC demonstrate that Egyptian art could assimilate new possibilities while retaining its essential character and integrity. During the Late Period, when Egypt had really already lost much of its prestige, Egyptians attempted to revive the classic images of the Old and Middle Kingdom, which must have symbolized a lost sense of stability and certainly. Then, after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander The Great, the nature of Pharaonic art was adapted to create a compromise between the needs of the native Egyptians and the preferences of the New Greek, and later Roman rulers. Though from this period we have some of the largest surviving religious buildings, the reliefs were beginning to appear mass produced and repetitive, and the artwork was increasingly poorly formulated and executed. However, at the same time, there were new cultural elements absorbed from the Mediterranean word, such as the Fayoum mummy paintings.

Most all three-dimensional representations, whether standing, seated or kneeling, exhibit what is called frontality. That is, they face straight ahead, even though at times they may be striding. Were it not for our understanding of their purpose, it might be easy to criticize their rigidity that remained unchanged for three thousand years, particularly when viewed outside of their original context. However, such statues were not produced as pure art, but rather to play a primary role in the cults of the gods, kings and the dead. They were places in which these beings could manifest themselves in order to be the recipients of ritual actions. Hence, it made perfect sense to show the statue looking forward at what was happening in front of it, so that the living could interact with the divine or deceased recipient. Furthermore, such statues were very frequently enclosed in rectangular  shrines or wall niches with an opening only in the front, making it natural for the statue to display frontality. Other statues were frequently placed in pillared courts, where they would typically be situated between pillars, and frontality worked perfectly for this context as well.

Most of the statues produced in ancient Egypt were made of stone, wood or metal. Stone statues were produced usually from a single rectangular block. Stone between the arms and the body, as well as between the legs in standing figures or the legs and the seat in seated ones, was commonly not cut away, adding to the strength of the physical sculpture. This method also added to the image of strength and power of the being depicted, and frequently the statue was “engaged” to the front of a pillar or column which added to this effect.

Wooden statues, on the other hand, were generally carved from several pieces of wood and pegged together, while metal statues were either made by wrapping sheet metal around a wooden core or cast by the lost wax process. In these, the arms were sometimes held away from the body and could carry separate items in their hands. However, though wooden and metal sculptures have a completely different effect, altogether lighter and freer than their stone counterparts, they still display frontality.

There was one other type of statuary aside from those depicting deities, kings and other elite members of society. These small statuettes depicted generic figures, frequently servants, from the  non-elite population. Their function varied considerably from other statues, for these were made to put in tombs of the elite in order to serve the tomb owner in the afterlife. These funerary figurines depict a wide range of actions, from grinding grain to making music, while some are simply standing figures, depending on the time frame in which they were produced. They were not used in any cult, and are not meant to help perpetuate the existence of a particular person. In effect, they are merely a component of the overall funerary equipment placed in tombs for the benefit of the owner. Unlike formal statues, these were not limited to static poses. Depending on the activity in which they are engaged, they may be bending or squatting or take another position suitable to their work. In fact, it is the action and not the figure itself that is important.

Producing the three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface is very different than working with statuary. In a number of cultures, artists have found ways by which to obtain the illusion of the third dimension, adding depth to their work, while in others the two-dimensionality of the drawing surface has been accepted and even exploited. The ancient Egyptians belong to this latter group. Rather than attempting to create the appearance of depth, they instead arranged the objects they wished to depict over the flat drawing surface.  Such objects were drawn using their most characteristic and easily recognized aspect, usually in profile, full view, plan or elevation. Because these different views can occur together in the same picture plane, the result is not rendered as though from a single viewpoint. Rather, it is a composite assemblage containing information that can be interpreted by the educated viewer.

The human figure was usually formed from a composite built up from its individual parts. Hence, the head may be shown in profile, though with a full view of the eyebrow and eye set into it. The shoulders of formal figures are most usually shown frontally, while the waist, buttocks and limbs are in profile. Normally, the nipple on male figures and the breast on females are drawn in profile on the front line of the body, while items that lie on the chest such as collars, necklaces, pectorals and clothing are shown in full frontal view on the expanse of the torso framed by the front and back lines of the body. The navel is shown full view and is placed inside the front line of the body at the appropriate level. Prior to the 18th Dynasty, the two feet are depicted identically from the inside, showing the big toe and the arch. Later, the near foot was increasing shown from the outside with all the toes showing.

Even when the figures on the walls of Egyptian tombs and temples are acting out myths, rituals and historical events, they are nevertheless carved or painted with the stiffness and formality of hieroglyphs.

The ancient Egyptians sought order in their world, and it was also fundamental to their art. Only when the concept of chaos was intended, were figures placed haphazardly on the drawing surface. Otherwise, they were set within a system of registers, the lower border of which acted as the ground line for the figures within the register.

The position of figures within a scene could be determined by the viewer according to several rules. Objects could be overlapped within the register, which means that the object partially covered by another is farther away. Items higher up in the register are further away than those lower down. The hierarchical ordering of society was reflected in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional art by scale. Hence, the king’s figure is usually the same size as the gods whom he interacts with, though larger than his queen, children or subjects.

Whether in two or three-dimensions, Egyptian art was usually combined with text. Short captions might describe the figures depicted and the actions taking place, while longer texts  included requests for offerings for the dead, hymns to deities, works spoken by deities to the king, etc. The hieroglyphic texts within any scene typically formed an integral part of the whole composition. Because the blocks of hieroglyphic texts was often set against representational elements, the composition would lack balance without them.

In fact, hieroglyphs were small images drawn according to the principles that underlie Egyptian two dimensional art. Nevertheless, the images often do not resemble the objects that they describe, but are phonetic, representing different consonantal sounds in the Egyptian language. However, other hieroglyphs are logographic, representing literally or metaphorically an object or idea. Interestingly, hieroglyphs can act as determinatives. That is, they are placed at the ends of individual words to “determine” a category. For example, the name of a man may be followed by an image of a man identifying the  word as a man’s name. However, so clearly connected is art and hieroglyphs that when a figure is identified by its name in hieroglyphs, the expected determinative is usually omitted because the picture the name identifies acts as its determinative.

Usually, the orientation of scenes in two dimensional art for hieroglyphs and figures was facing to the right. However, it was not uncommon for both to also face left, dictated by the circumstances, or for the hieroglyphs to be written in horizontal lines or vertical columns. Of course, this allowed for considerable versatility and subtlety when combining text with depictions. Usually, hieroglyphs faced the same direction as the figures they refer to, and in fact, the art was intended to be read like an elaborate code much like the hieroglyphic text.

The mediums with which Egyptian artists worked were varied. One of the most easily obtained was limestone, which composed the cliffs to either side of much of the Nile Valley. Other common soft stone materials included calcite (Egyptian Alabaster), a crystalline form of calcium  carbonate, sandstone, schist and greywacke. Harder stones included quartzite (a crystalline form of sandstone), diorite, granodiorite, granite and basalt. Stone was almost always used in royal free standing and rock cut temples and tombs after the earliest periods. It was also used to make statues, stelae, offering tables, libation bowls, vessels and other ritual equipment.

Soft stone, whether cut in place such as a rock cut tomb, or carved into blocks as in free standing temples, was usually covered by plaster prior to being decorated. Paint was sometimes also applied to hard stone, but often it was left visible for its symbolism. Hence, black stone such as granodiorite was representative of the life giving black silt left by the Nile inundation, thus symbolizing new life, resurrection and the resurrected god of he dead, Osiris. Red, brown, yellow and gold were associated with the sun, and so stones of those colors, such as red and brown quartzite and red granite, symbolized the sun. Green stone referred to fresh, growing vegetation, new life, resurrection and Osiris as well, who sometimes appears with black skin and sometimes green.

Limestone and other soft stones were carved with copper chisels and stone tools. Hard stones were worked by hammering and grinding them with tools made of even harder stone together with sand, which is basically quartz, acting as an abrasive. Stone vessels were hollowed out using drills with copper bits, together with an abrasive. These tools were also used to apply details and inscriptions to hard stone monuments. Afterwards, the finished object was polished with a smooth rubbing stone.

If the stone was to be painted, the surface had to be smoothed and any holes in the stone or joints between blocks filled in with plaster.

Scenes on stone surfaces were often cut into relief before painting (or when not painted at all). There were two main types of reliefs, consisting of raised and sunk relief. In both, chisels were used to cut around the outlines of figures. Then, in raised relief, the stone of the background was cut away, so that the figures were left standing out from the surface. In sunk relief, it was the figures that were cut back within their outlines, leaving the surface of the background at a higher level. In both methods, the figures were modeled to a greater or lesser extent within their outlines. Traditionally, sunk relief was used on outside walls and raised relief on interior walls, because bright sunlight has the effect of flattening raised relief and enhancing sunk relief. It should be noted that such work could also be applied to plastered surfaces on soft stone.

In Theban tombs which were often simply painted, as opposed to relief-cut, rock cut walls, the walls were first covered with mud that was then plastered before painting. Treated similarly to soft stone, mudbrick was used in houses, palaces and other public buildings. And like the walls in Theban tombs, the mud was prepared for decoration with a layer of plaster.

Prior to actually painting the prepared surfaces of stone or plaster over stone or mudbrick, scenes were laid out by first marking off the area to be decorated and then drawing in the initial sketches in red, to which corrections were often made in black, probably by the master draughtsman in charge of the project. Squared grids were introduced at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. Used to assist the artist in obtaining the proper proportions of their figures and often also to lay out the composition as a whole, the grids were drawn out on the surface before the scene was sketched in. The lines of the grid were either drawn against a straight edge, or more commonly made with a string that was dipped in red paint and stretched taut across the surface before being snapped against it like a modern chalk line.

The sketches were drawn with brushes, similar to those that were used by scribes. They were made from fine reeds that were trimmed at one end to an angle and chewed or split to fray the fibers. For the actual application of paint, thicker brushes were made from fibrous wood such as palm ribs, or from bundles of twigs tied together that were than beaten at one end to separate the fibers and make a course brush.



Pigments for paint came primarily from minerals that occur naturally in Egypt and the surrounding desert. White was usually made from calcium carbonate (whiting) or calcium sulphate (gypsum). However, huntite, which was already in use during the Middle Kingdom, and which became common during the New Kingdom, produced a more intense white. It was frequently used to paint white areas, such as clothing, so that it would stand out against the less white background of calcium carbonate.

Black was produced from one of several forms of carbon, most commonly soot or charcoal.

Ochre (iron oxide) could produce a range of colors from light yellow to dark brown depending on the level of hydration. It was frequently used for reds and yellows. During the New Kingdom, realgar was also used for red, but is unstable in light, and has often degraded over time to yellow. Orpiment was used from the Middle Kingdom onward to obtain a very bright yellow that was used to simulate gold. However, it fades in light to a dull off-white so that its effect is often lost. Jarosite was also used to produce a pale yellow. The artists used different yellow pigments side by side, showing that they were not mere substitutes for each other.

Blue was sometimes provided from azurite (copper carbonate), which over time becomes green as it changes to malachite, another form of copper carbonate. However, Egyptian blue was more common, which consisted of a compound made from heating quartz, ground malachite and calcium carbonate together. Different shades of blue were obtained according to the way in which the resulting compound was ground for use, since the finer the grain the paler the blue. Green rather than blue could be produced if the proportions of malachite and calcium carbonate were varied. However, green was more frequently made from naturally occurring malachite. Sometimes, the pigments were mixed together to make different colors prior to application. For example, black might be mixed with white to obtain gray, or red and white to make pink.

Pigments were prepared by grinding them on a hard stone mortar before mixing them with a medium such as plant gum or animal glue.

Paint was laid on in flat washes, pigment by pigment, so that painters mixed as much of one color as they needed, painted in all the appropriate areas, and then moved on to another color. However, colors could also be painted over one another in layers to obtain different color effects. The final stage of painting was to outline figures and add interior details with a fine brush. Many details in relief work and on statues were often only added in paint and not cut into the stone.

No discussion of stone art would be complete without reference to Ostracons, rock fragments that were used for various purposes. They were generally discarded fragments, which were frequently used to draw plans and sketch out drawings. However, some of the most interesting artwork ever produced in Egypt were recorded on their small surfaces, usually by craftsman, but also by anyone else. They were the scratchpads of ancient Egypt, used by the common man to do the ancient equivalent of doodling. As such, there were no real rules that applied and so we find a completely unique art form known perhaps no where else in Egypt other than perhaps the graffiti drawn on the faces of cliffs.

Even though Egypt has very little wood, there is nevertheless a long tradition of working with this material. Most Egyptian timber consists of tamarisk, acacia and Sycamore figs, wood that tends to be irregular, small and knotted, at least in comparison to the coniferous wood imported from Syria. However, Egyptian artisans became skilled at piecing together uneven lengths of native Egyptian wood in order to build furniture, chests, coffins and even statues. Wood was shaped with chisels and adzes and the surface smoothed down with rubbing stones. Sometimes the surface of these objects were plastered over and painted, but on good quality wood, paint was sometimes applied to the wood itself.

Egyptians worked with metals for earlier than many realize. There are scenes in Old Kingdom tomb depicting metal working, and we know that they used copper from during the earliest periods, arsenic bronze (copper and arsenic) from the late Old Kingdom, and bronze (copper and tin) from the later Middle Kingdom. Gold and silver were also highly prized as precious metals, though initially silver was very rare.

In addition to wood and stone, linen could also be plastered and painted to make decorated funerary and votive cloths. Alternating layers of linen and plaster were used to build up cartonnage, from which painted funerary masks, coffins and mummy wrappings were manufactured.

We must also mention papyrus paper as a medium. It was primarily used as a writing surface for a wide range of administrative, economic, literary and ritual documents, but it was also used for other purposes. Specifically, papyrus was used for the production of funerary texts, such as versions of the Book of the Dead, which also included illustrations drawn and painted with the fine scribal brush. Other non-funerary papyrus were also sometimes painted or sketched upon with little or no text.

Metal was used in the production of statues, temple fittings and cult implements, jewelry and funerary equipment. Both silver and gold were used to product cult statues, which were then frequently inlaid with materials such as precious stones. Obviously, many of these statues did not survive, for they were repeatedly melted down for their valuable metal and stones. Gold and Silver were not used in religious statuary simply because of their value, but also because of the symbolism associated with these metals. Gold was considered the flesh of the gods, particularly the sun god, and silver was the material from which the bones of the gods were made. Furthermore, silver was associated with the moon, so lunar disks on statues were sometimes made from this material.

The Egyptians also manufactured a material which we often call Egyptian faience or glazed composition. Faience consists of a quartz core with a glazed surface. The material could be modeled and molded, and because it was inexpensive, this material was used to mass produce many small objects such as statuettes, amulets, rings and ear studs. It was often made to imitate stone and used as a substitute for that material.

The color of the glaze depended on additions to the basic mixture. One of the most common colors was a blue-green, imitating turquoise, which was associated with the important goddess, Hathor, sometimes known as the “Lady of Turquoise”. Also, the ancient Egyptian word for faience was tjehenet, from the root tjehen, meaning “to dazzle or gleam”. Hence, the material also had a solar symbolism.