|>| The Model Tree

Seeing Egyptian wall painting – the watcher and an alternative visual metaphor.

The “Watcher

I began my interest in Egyptian painting by looking at reproductions of the paintings. When I began reviewing the literature to find discussions of what I had seen, I was disappointed to discover that most writers presented very general information. Henrietta Groenewegen-Frankfort in her classic examination of the representation of space and time in ancient art was my first contact with an author that looked carefully and came up with reasonable and interesting conclusions (1). One of these conclusions was that the paintings were for the deceased to watch. To support this statement she points out that the image of the deceased was represented as bystander who almost never took an active part in the scenes. She also declares that the paintings were not depictions of scenes from the deceased’s life, like a present day photo album, but rather a presentation of typical images of Egyptian life in general, much like a PowerPoint™ presentation filled with clip-art images. So, as I understand her views, there was no intent to illustrate the life of the entombed but simply to remind him of life’s events, in a general way, as one would be reminded of one’s own wedding by seeing a photo of a bride and groom in a magazine. Accepting this point of view helped me clarify why the paintings look so different from what the western viewer expects to see when looking at a painting intended to represent people, animals, and objects.

Because the “watcher” needs to be able to easily recognize a general form of the figure, the images of objects, animals and people,  are displayed in their most typical position. In figures of people, this typical position even extends to parts of the figure. Thus the side view of the head contains a front view of an eye, the chest and shoulders are seen from the front but the arms and legs are shown from the side. This is especially distressing to the western viewer because to accomplish this, the subject’s anatomy must be distorted.  But, though odd, the distortions are uniformly applied to the figures so that what is being represented is clearly recognizable – even to western eyes. To aid the watcher further, the people represented in the paintings are garbed in clothes and associated with architecture, implements, plants, or animals that identify their role in their immediate grouping.  And, the relative size of the figure is used to establish the importance of the illustrated person. This “size equals importance” is especially confusing to the western eye because we have been conditioned to view size as an indication of how close the figure is to the viewer.  These visual aids for the Egyptian watcher are basically distractions to the contemporary western viewer. We are accustom to seeing sculptural figures that are anatomical correct interacting in a coherent three dimensional space and therefore have a difficult time accepting that this is ‘good’ painting.  It may seem the ancient Egyptian artists were ignorant of perspective and other basic drawing and painting skills but this was not the case. They simply did not need these skills to achieve the results they intended. In fact any illusion of sculptural space would have diluted their intentions.

The “Artist?”

It’s my hope that this new way of looking at the wall paintings will allow us to think about the intention of the artist rather that be distracted by the style. However, before we move on, I think a moments reflection on what the word “artist” means to modern ears and how the concept applies to the makers of the tomb paintings. It is important is to realize that the idea of a sole creator making a work of art simply did not exist in ancient Egypt. No famous artists. In fact the paintings were a collective enterprise, much like the production of today’s comic books. There was a designer, a writer, a colorist, and an outliner. During the decoration of one tomb there may have been several different individuals assigned to each of these categories. However, the designer was the one who establish the over all scheme of the paintings and possibly indicated with a few general guidelines the figures and their arrangement. The designer was a literate member of the bureaucracy that was tasked with providing the instructions for assembling the decoration. He was not necessarily skilled at painting or drawing but because writing in ancient Egypt was pictographic, anyone who could write could also create adequate sketches for illiterate craftsman to execute. Designer is a more neutral term than artist to indicate the team that created the images. Thinking of an “artist”, in the modern sense, executing these ancient wall paintings is not helpful to fully seeing their intent.

To avoid having our present day expectations prevent us from viewing the Egyptian wall paintings as they were intended, I suggest we stop thinking of them as paintings and find another current mode of assembling an image that fits more closely with the goals of the Egyptian designer.

A Plastic Model “Tree”
A plastic model kit, contains the parts that are to be glued together to form the 3d model (a car, boat, airplane, etc.) and a set of instructions describing how to assemble the model. In this comparison, I suggest we view the plastic parts of of the tree as analogous to the figures that are represented in the wall painting and the instructions as the hieroglyphic notations that appear along side the images.

I have chosen the plastic model for my illustration for two reasons. First, the items are parts of a whole that until assembled, painted, and perhaps customized by the modeler is simply a collection of recognizable but incoherent parts much like the figures in the wall painting. Second, the arrangement of the model’s parts are attached to a tree, a plastic frame, from which the modeler can easily remove individual pieces when he is ready to glue them into place. Moreover, the tree is arranged in rows of parts and looks very similar to the arrangements of the wall paintings. To illustrate how visually similar the model tree and the wall painting look, I have created an imaginative Egyptian version of a typical model tree by replacing the model’s parts with items from Egyptian wall paintings.


Using this metaphor, it’s possible to move away from our expectations of what a painting is supposed to be and entertain the idea that the parts of the image were intended as units to be mentally manipulated by the deceased to use them to enhance the voyage in the land of the dead. Much like the model maker, the deceased chooses from the images and assembles a moment by moment visual world made up of “memories” cued by these pictorial assemblages.

1. Groenewegen-Frankfort, H. A. “Book One. Egyptian Art.” Arrest and Movement – An Essay on Space and Time in the representational Art of the ancient Near
East. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. 15-141.