Part One, Chapter 6: Cultivation

from the upcoming book
EVOLUTION THROUGH ART
Art — Integrator of the Human Mind

Copyright  © 2021 by Michael Newberry

PART ONE CHAPTER 6: CULTIVATION

Gebel el-Arak Knife, 3300-3200 BC, either elephant or hippopotamus tusk ivory, flint. Found Abydos, Egypt.

A Friend of Lions

Artists for the next 35 thousand years after the Lion Man would continue their slow progress, developing conceptual awareness, imagination, and goal-directed results. Humans would apply these conceptual tools to solve complex problems with forward-looking solutions in farming, grain storage, animal domestication, irrigation, metals, building, communication, warfare, language, religion,  law—even in romance. And presto! Civilization began, bubbling up around 3500 BC in Mesopotamia and Egypt. These evolutionary strides in all walks of life were tremendous. Sculptures, paintings, and reliefs would come out of the caves and satchels to adorn everyday life, and hold a place of honor in public ceremonies, palaces, and temples. But due to limited understanding about the nature of art, these early artistic civilizations would also turn the tables on artists.

A stunning artwork is the Gebel el-Arak Knife, 3300-3200 BC, found in Abydos, Egypt. It is an intricately carved ivory ceremonial dagger, a luxury item presumably worn around the neck, and is stylistically similar to Mesopotamian art, such as the Uruk King-Priest, 3300 BC. There are two figurative scenes carved on each side of the handle: On one side, there is a war scene. On the other side is a man, presumably a king-priest, in the company of animals. The most prominent section is the king flanked by two male lions showing they are on equal footing, which after thousands of years shows that lions are still held in high esteem, but more importantly marks the ascent of humankind.  

All the figures are stylized with elegant proportions and realistic edges/lines—an advancement of a professional skills worthy of the great Art Deco artist Tamara Łempicka. The lions and the domestic dogs below them are mirrored pairs, a beautiful design device that gives the ivory a sense of airy reflection. Worthy of a jeweler, the refined carving around the heads, paws, hoofs, and ankles is excellent, especially considering that the handle is smaller than a computer mouse. The craftsmanship has a sense of polish and beautiful exactitude, which implies that the execution was the result of a well-laid plan. 

There is wonderful symbolism in the character and design of this work. The lions are the same height as the man, and both are above the other animals. The man appears to pat the lions’ jaws, which they gladly accept. They look like buddies. Lions and kings co-rule! There is one hint of foreboding—the lions are standing and placing one of their paws on the man’s waist—similar to the behavior of dominant dogs—giving a sense that there is no threat now, but that could change. Underneath the lion and man trio are two collared dogs, then underneath man’s best friends, are a ram, some cattle or deer, and a partial scene of a lioness attacking the rear of a large animal. The hierarchy of the top to bottom order is not random, but a thoughtful symbolic arrangement showing that humanity had arrived at the head of the pack with lions supporting the arrangement. 

On the other side,  3.7 x 1.7 x .47″ (precise size), is a battle scene with over fourteen human figures! They are in hand-to-hand combat, along with some rocking boats near the bottom of the scene. The figures are partially naked male figures wearing helmets and wielding clubs. There are no mirror images, and while the men have similar proportions, their postures vary; each one slightly different. It is a great artistic feat to compose so many figures in a clear and unconfusing manner. The fighting figures are less polished and more improvised than on the animal side. Rising from the boats are four standards, presumably of the opposing forces; two have a horizontal crescent moon symbol; two others have a phallic shape enclosed in a circle. Nice touch of contrast!

Another artistic advancement in this work is the visual presentation of themes. A theme is an abstract summation of a story or an idea. This development is stunningly advanced—even today’s artists struggle with integrating themes into their works. It takes a tremendous amount of time, effort, and mental acuity to master it. But what do the two themes mean when taken together? On the one side the overlord is shown in gracious harmony with the animal kingdom, a wonderful symbol of peace, while on the other side there is a brutal narrative of war. Does the fighting scene represent a clash between Egyptian and Mesopotanian forces? Perhaps the Gebel el-Arak Knife is a memorandum, or a contract, offering the threat of devastating war or offering peace with a powerful king, the equal of lions and the protector of harmony? Or is it one of the earliest pieces of propaganda? Regardless, it is a monumental artistic achievement that visually communicates concepts of war and peace. It is a beautiful irony that such a small work can have monumental historical importance. 

I believe the Gebel el-Arak Knife is a product of early workshops employing apprentices under the guidance of a master. The two sides appear to be from different sculptors but trained at the same school/factory. I also wonder if there was a stencil or something like that to copy the inverse images. Perhaps a master had made a prototype design? The two sides have some differences in styles, but the butts and thighs of the lions and the men on the other side are similarly flat. Maybe the master artist did the side with the king-priest figure while his apprentices did the fight scenes? Or a mixture of both? 

What a bittersweet and wonderful cultural development that artists could actually live by making art. Art was in demand to be used to decorate pottery, weapon handles, jewelry, buildings, and even very sophisticated cosmetic palettes. Do we have here the first industrialization of art? Did art change in these early civilizations from a personal artistic adventure to becoming a commercial product and serving the interests of the powerful? We see great advancements in technique, style, human status, symbolism, and the communication of themes, yet we see very little of the artist exploring art for art’s sake. Could it be possible that civilization was responsible for the domestication of artists? 

The First Logos? 

A surprisingly fun and creative use of art for utilitarian purposes was the Mesopotamian cylinder seal (beginning around 3500 BC), a hard and often semi-precious stone carved in negative relief. It was a combination of a storyboard, logo, and identity card. The very clever solution was to create a small relief stamp that would be rolled on clay to make a positive relief of people and scenes that told a quick story. Like a coat of arms, but less static. People would have worn them around their necks like identification cards. In a way these were the first moving pictures. To sign a contract, the owner would take the seal from around their neck, and roll out its impression on clay showing a visual story of their heritage. It would also be an official proof of their unique individuality, a very interesting consequence of civilization. It would also have been big business for the craftsmen making them. 

Awestruck

One of the ways powerful people, ancient and contemporary, use art is to astound their friends, enemies, and conquests. Czars, despots, monarchs, pharaohs, tycoons, popes, priests, politicians, and dictators have used art as propaganda, carefully selected for its effect on a targeted audience. They discovered that art deeply touched people in a way like no other communication did—nothing like the crude attempts of didactic indoctrination, advertising, or pamphlets. They found art reached people on a visceral level emotionally transporting them to a state of reverence.

A dear friend, beautiful, smart, and internationally savvy, told me that she met a Greek hotel tycoon in his temple-like office, which was slathered in marble, with a few beautifully placed sculptures from antiquity. He was ensconced behind a huge neoclassical ornate marble desk. To reach him she had to walk across 30 yards, her heels clacking uncomfortably loudly, echoing on the stone slabs. She said the experience was acutely ingenious, impressive, and a little intimidating. 

Cathedrals, mosques, Eqyptian temples, museums, atriums, and palaces with their grand entrances, art, and magnificent design elements serve the same function as the Greek tycoon’s office. Eqyptian temples have magnificent entrances of pillars carved with pictographs telling glorious stories of dynastic rulers and their friends the gods, depicting their military prowess, power to smite enemies, and their benevolence to create an abundance of food and treasure. These narratives are warming up the audiences like a magnificent orchestral introduction to a diva’s aria—unmistakingly letting them know that they are in the presence of greatness. 

The stewards of these monumental artworks and edifices are using sleight of hand to redirect the power of art and your veneration of it to themselves, hopefully make you malleable and receptive to sign their contracts, accept their doctrines, or to acquiesce to guilt or whatever else they have in store for you. A secondary effect of granting you a glimpse of their resplendence, they hope that the sublime experience will hook you like a drug—with the aim of making you dependent on them.  

 Often the stewards bait the artists with offering them the grandest stage of all, and the resources to create spectacular technical accomplishments—light years beyond the humble beginnings of cave paintings.  These spectacular monuments could not be created without monumental wealth, but their psychological power is given to them by artists. 

Hymn to Aten: Love of Life?

Around the time of the Gebel el-Arak Knife, 3300 BC, the polytheistic Egyptian civilization began its magnificent and sustained artistic rollout that lasted until Alexander the Great in 332 BC. It must have been incredibly rich to have such an abundance of art in every social class. Egyptians excelled in all genres from monumental architecture and sculpture, to painting, to stone makeup palettes, and to intricate jewelry. Artists made advancements in human proportions, line quality, forms, composition, style, themes, and visual storytelling. Some artistic weaknesses were the stiffness of the formal, straight on seated pharaohs, but incredible feats of excellence especially when enlarged on a monumental scale. And they were fearless in depicting polished and formal features of human and animal faces, even if lacking some character. As a whole a tradition of style was upheld. 

Then in the middle of this 3000-year cultural reign a shocking disruption occurred. 

There was a brief 17-year period, circa 1353-1336 BC in which a radical experiment happened. It would tear open an evolutionary rift, like opening a space-time continuum. Then it closed up almost as soon as it had opened—but not before it had an opportunity to leave its mark. 

The Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, with a striking, elongated face, succeeded his deceased father Amenhotep III circa 1353 BC and was to rule for the next seventeen years until he died. He came to power in a civilization with two millennia of tradition in art and polytheism. There was a deeply ingrained culture of religious bureaucracy with over two thousand deities, made up of local gods, sub-gods, universal gods, animal gods, zoomorphic gods, and all the priests and people who served them. Pharaoh Akhenaten was to smash this Egyptian culture. 

Akhenaten in his fifth year as pharaoh established Aten as the sole god, built a new capital devoted to Aten, and stopped supporting the pantheon of gods and their priests. The Hymn to Aten and its variations like The Short Hymn to Aten were Akhenaten’s manifestos. Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson said that “It has been called ‘one of the most significant and splendid pieces of poetry to survive from the pre-Homeric world.” Here is one excerpt from The Short Hymn to Aten:

You are radiant, beauteous, mighty,

Your love is great, immense.

Your rays light up all faces,

Your bright hue gives life to hearts,

When you fill the Two Lands with your love.

Unlike most other Egyptian gods and goddesses, Aten had no human characteristics and took no anthropomorphic form: Aten was represented as a sun disc. This anticipates “Thou shall not make graven images” of later near-east religions. Akhenaten likened Aten to the sun, comparing the other deities to stars, which has a certain logic to it as the sun is more important to us than the stars are. Many of the narrative depictions show Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti giving thanks to Aten, sometimes playing with their kids under its rays. The hymn also alludes to the Nile turning Egypt into a heaven on earth for all peoples. The imagery can be taken that the sun and water give humans vitality and life, without which they would die.  So celebrate the sun and bathe in its glory and flourish. 

Rejecting the Old Ways

Relief of Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Two Daughters, circa 1360 BC, painted limestone, Egyptian Museum, Egypt.

The official full-length portraits of Akhenaten are uniquely curious. There is a contradiction between a pronounced feminine body and masculine face, definitely a break from the traditional images of youthful warrior pharaohs. Was Akhenaten presented this way as a rejection of tradition? Could the depiction be realistic, that he might have had narrow shoulders and rounded hips? Could it be symbolic?  That he represented everyone, both masculine and feminine? Or could it be a very advanced form of self-acceptance, an honest form of self-esteem, that things are what they are? There were cases of inbreeding resulting in deformities, so could Akhenaten feel that idealism simply wasn’t real? Could this imagery be a rebellion against 2,000 years of propaganda? I think looking at the art there is a bit of truth to all these possibilities. But all of them are more authentically human than the traditional Egyptian aesthetic doctrine. 

Thutmose Magnificent Faces: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and King Tut

AKHENATEN

What I find especially stunning are the portraits of Akhenaten’s face. Akhenaten’s portraits show us powerfully and beautifully shaped lips, an elegant long nose, very prominent cheekbones, slanted wide eyes, a long chin, and very large ears. There is a world of character in the expression of lips: confident, thoughtful, sensual, a hint of humor, and firmness. 

The pronounced features would have helped the sculptures stand out from a large distance. There is an interesting sculptor’s trick: the large ears help pull the rest of the features together. When looked at from a great distance it would look more real than an exact copy of a human face, as optically real faces flatten out over distance. Once Sophia Loren, the famous Italian beauty and actress, commented that her features should not work as a classic beauty because her lips, nose, and eyes were too big for her face, but they complemented each other well. The same goes for Akhenaten’s head. 

There is an intimate bust of Akhenaten found in the court sculptor Thutmose’s workshop. The likeness is unmistakable but less stylized. There is an uncanny sense that it was sculpted from life. It looks like a young man with the weight of the world on his shoulders, contemplative and a little sad. The eyes have a gaze of looking at a distant world, and the corner of the mouth is pensive. There is no artifice, just a great and sensitive sculptor trying to capture the real person behind one of the most sacred and powerful men of the time.  

NEFERTITI

A German archaeological expedition discovered Thutmose’s workshop in 1912. Tucked away in his workshop were several plaster casts and stone carvings of Akhenaten’s family, including one of the most well-known Egyptian artworks, the painted limestone portrait of Nefertiti. Nefertiti was the queen and wife of Akhenaten. Why was this in his workshop? The royal family were living contemporaries, and they probably posed for Thutmose directly. I am guessing these prototypes from life would be used as references for official portraits or narrative reliefs. Much like how some artists do today. All the portraits in his workshop have unique, realistic features, often expressing a warm humanity and a living quality. 

Thutmose’s Nefertiti piece accomplishes one of the most difficult feats in all art: to make the portrait both beautiful and alive. Perfection tends to kill the energy of art. That is when you may have heard an artist comment that the work is “overworked.” This sculpture is exquisitely alive and perfected in proportions, detailing, and elegance. Notably the corners of her mouth are true to life, and often this area is problematic because any tiny defect changes the character of the sitter. A tinge uplifted and the mouth looks like a smirk; a microscopic down turn and the face looks dower; too straight and it looks locked in a frozen formality. Thutmose found the right nuance to give Nefertiti’s mouth an unselfconscious confidence and warmth. A similar characteristic is found in the portraits of Ahkenaten.

Another beautiful feature is the flow of her pronounced cheekbones and how they glide into the hollow of her cheek, and circulate towards her jaw, giving a feeling of pure ease. It is a complex area for psychological expression: if the jaw has anything off, it will give the face a grinding-teeth-look or a hidden tension that definitely undercuts beauty and warmth. Thutmose mastered form and human anatomy to such a degree as to give a truly beautiful and living glow. This portrait would immortalize Nefertiti’s reputation as one of the most beautiful women of all time. 

KING TUT

This brings us to speculate on the extraordinarily famous Eqyptian artwork, the golden Mask of Tutankhamun (King Tut). Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten and one of his sisters. My speculation started when I was wondering who sculpted the famous gold mask. In studying the busts from Thutmose’s workshop I was struck by the similarities of the gold Mask of Tut and the candid bust of Tut’s grandfather, Amenhotep III. Taking into account the differences between an extravagantly polished gold finish with a plaster cast study, they have almost identical facial features: the same shape of the head, same proportions, there is a particular curve in the jaw line, the rounded nose, Asiatic eyelids, the cheeks and how they curve around the corners of the mouth, and a certain squareness of chin. It seems more plausible that the studio bust is an original of Tutankhamun and not Amenhotep III. There is also the timing: Thutmose was the court sculptor and would have had the status to sculpt the young Tutankhamun live. The studio bust is a young man, it is doubtful that Thutmose would have been sculpting a young Amenhotep III decades earlier. 

Thutmose might not have been the goldsmith applying the finishing layers of gold, but he would have been in charge of the public and funeral sculptures and planning ahead for those events. Because of Thutmose’s extraordinary ability to sculpt in a candid living way and to make exquisite beautiful portraits, I think he either made or supervised the mask of King Tut. 

Pharaoh Akhenaten for a brief shining moment tried to transform Egypt into a humanist paradise, and his colleague in arms was the great sculptor Thutmose. The genius of Thutmose was to create humanist ideals through his ability of sculpting humanity with realism, warmth, character, honesty, beauty, individuality, and love. 

After Akhenaten died the curtain on this part of human evolution would close for the next thousand years. The capital that Akhenaten built was completely abandoned within a few years. His son Tutankhamun became pharaoh, reversing all his father’s policies—reestablishing all the old traditions and gods, and rescinding Aten’s status. The deep religious state tried to wipe the memory of the “heretic” Akhenaten from history, defacing many of  his images and the hieroglyphs referring to him. 

Thutmose’s art was unvalued and consigned to oblivion only to resurface in the twentieth century. Paradoxically, he now shares the esteemed status of being not only one of Egypt’s but one of the world’s greatest artists.

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