Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.10.36

Gay Robins, The Art of Ancient Egypt.   Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2000.  Pp. 271, 304 plates.  ISBN 0-674-00376-4.  $24.95.  



Reviewed by Monica Bontty, Department of History, Cal State San Marcos
Word count: 990 words

This beautifully illustrated volume presents an introduction to ancient Egyptian art for a broad audience. Ancient Egypt was a highly complex society, and by making Ancient Egyptian art accessible for the non-specialist, the author has provided an exceptional work. As the author stresses, ancient Egyptian art, whether utilized in a tomb or a temple, was meant to be functional rather than "for the sake of art." In other words, the various functions of Egyptian art are emphasized and the author gives an exciting, fresh perspective on form and function. This work is a case study on how to produce an introductory yet thorough overview on a particular subject for Robins has satisfied the need to be concise by choosing the most relevant and aesthetic material and illustrations. Furthermore, the plates and the explanations that accompany them are easily found on the same or adjacent pages, thus making them user-friendly. These things make the book useful for the general reader, especially one who is being exposed to Egyptian art for the first time.

The format utilized by the author is direct and logical: each chapter presents a topic that is then divided into sections. Additionally, the author deliberately traces objects of art and shows how styles evolved through time. Topics such as "The Egyptian World View," "Principles of Egyptian Art," and "Materials, Techniques and Artists" are clearly discussed, helping the reader understand and appreciate the role and function of ancient Egyptian art. Instead of a strictly thematic examination, the author adopts a chronological approach, showing how styles evolved through time by tracing the development of specific art objects. Well-known masterpieces are presented, but the book does not limit itself to these pieces since they are discussed at length in many works on Egyptian art. Therefore, the author includes lesser-known objects in her discussion, allowing the reader to have a more comprehensive view of ancient Egypt.

Chapter Two focuses on the formative years (Dynasties I and II, 2920-2649 B.C.E.) out of which emerged a unified state under a single king. It was during this period that basic rules of art were established. Chapters Three and Four are devoted to the Pyramid Age. In addition to pyramids, royal sculpture, sun-temples, non-royal tombs and statuary are treated at length and representations of servants are also discussed. The Third Dynasty (2649-2575 B.C.E.) was a time of consolidation, providing a transition between the Early Dynastic Period and the Old Kingdom (2649-2134 B.C.E.), which is generally seen as the "golden age" of ancient Egypt. It was during this time that the power of the pharaoh was at its zenith. However, towards the end of the Sixth Dynasty, the size and decoration of the king's pyramid decreased, while at the same time, the tombs of members of the elite increased. The First Intermediate Period (Dynasties IV-VI 2134-2040 B.C.E.), which was characterized by the collapse of central authority, is discussed in Chapter Five. Here objects cause us to focus on the provinces and the author shows how the quality of art ranged from very crude to the well-developed pre-unification Theban style.

Chapters Six and Seven concentrate on the re-establishment of a unified government (Dynasties XI-XII 2040-1783 B.C.E.) and its gradual decline. The reemergence of pyramids, local temples and statues is well represented, but the work does not restrict itself to these items. Coffins, apotropaic objects and stelae are also included.

Seventy-one pages (Chapters Eight to Ten) are devoted to the New Kingdom (1550-1070 B.C.E.). An excellent overview of the XVIIIth Dynasty (1550-1307 B.C.E.), a time of empire as well as one of international contact, is provided. Images of the king are now common in private tombs; moreover, there was also an emphasis on the divine king and the solar cult, something which had later consequences. Because much of what is known about this period comes from the area of Thebes, our information is extremely one-sided. While the author acknowledges this, she also tries to correct it by her careful selection of objects. She has done a good job of presenting a more balanced image of the XVIIIth Dynasty.

An entire chapter (nine) is devoted to the Amarna Period (1353-1335 B.C.E.) and its radical changes in art. In the aftermath of Amarna, art returned to more traditional renderings, although not all of Amarna's influences were completely abandoned. Chapter Ten covers "The Glories of Empire," with extensive data on funerary and state temples. Post-Amarna art is not presented as dull or stagnant, but as demonstrated by the author, must instead be seen as fresh and dynamic. Again, she shows the depth and range of subject matter--new Netherworld books were used in royal tombs, while the fate of the deceased was emphasized in non-royal tomb chapels.

Egypt's weakening in the Late Period (712-332 B.C.E.) is the subject of chapter eleven. During this time Egypt was ruled successively by kings of Kush and Assyria before her re-establishment as a major player in the Ancient Near East. Artistically, this period was marked by an archaizing trend, something that is well illustrated by the author. Chapter Twelve showcases the art of the Third Intermediate Period (1070-712 B.C.E.). Although this was a time of disunity and foreign rule, there was no radical diminishing in the quality of Egyptian art.

A final blossoming of Egyptian Art under the Persians and Ptolemies is the subject of Chapter thirteen. The author concludes with an epilogue, extensive bibliography and suggestions for further reading.

The "Art of Ancient Egypt" is a wonderful work. It provides a fascinating glimpse of 3000 years of art in a pleasing, easy to read format. It enables the beginner to follow both the art and the history of ancient Egypt in a logical manner. However, the main strength of this work lies in its simplicity and elegance. It does exactly what it sets out to do and provides the reader a glimpse of an ancient civilization, which continues to intrigue and mesmerize students and scholars alike.

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