Before we can understand any art the first step is to discriminate between the different periods and their various styles, and to observe the characteristics of the several schools. If we consider medieval architecture, we separate the many periods from Saxon to Renaissance; if we turn to painting, we dis-tinguish many stages between Cimabue and Cana-letto, yet these variations belong but to a single revolution of civilisation, and are comprised within some centuries; in Egyptian art we have to deal with seven revolutions of civilisation and thousands of years. And not only the period, but also the source and traditions of each local branch of the art are to be recognised, and we discriminate a dozen schools of painting between Rome and Venice, each with its own style. So in Egypt we need to learn the various schools and understand their differences. In this chapter we shall notice the essential characters of each period and school as compared together; while in the following chapters the more technical detail of the statuary, reliefs, and paintings will be considered.
In order to grasp more readily the differences of period and of place, there are given here eight typical examples of different periods (figs. 3 to 10), and four examples of different schools during one reign (figs. 11 to 14). These may be supplemented by reference to subsequent illustrations, but the contrasts will be more readily seen in a simultaneous view.
The Prehistoric work (8000-5500 B.C.) shows much more mechanical than artistic ability. The treatment of the hardest materials was masterful; granite and porphyry were wrought as freely as limestone and alabaster; perfectly regular forms of vases were cut entirely by hand without any lathe. But with this there was a very tentative idea of animate forms. The feet and hands were omitted, and limbs ended only in points. The form of an outline was not thought to imply a solid, and it needed to be hatched over with cross lines (fig. 3) to show that it was a continuous body. The noses of animals are frequently shown touching, as in this instance of the dog and addax. In short, the figures are mere symbols of ideas, with little regard to their actual nature and apperance. This symbolic stage of art is found in most countries, and often with a higher sense of form and expression than among the prehistoric people of the Nile; there is nothing of this age in Egypt to compare with the carvings of the cave men of Europe.
5. Old Kingdom (IV)
4. Earliest dynastic.
6. Middle Kingdom (XII)
There is no sign of progress in art during this time. The slate palettes, cut in the forms of animal outlines, which were made through the whole age, begin with recognisable forms; and these were degraded by copying, until at the end their original types could hardly be guessed. The animal figures on ivory combs are passable in the earlier part of the age, and disappear entirely later on. The human figures, which are frequent in early times, are very rarely found later. The flint working shows degeneration long before historic times. And the pottery loses its fine forms, regularity, and brilliant finish, and becomes rough and coarse. In every direction it seems that the earliest prehistoric civilisation, which was probably connected with Libya, was superseded by a lower race, which was probably from the East.
The first dynasty (5500 B.C.) appears to have brought in entirely new influences. While the material civilisation naturally went on with many of the older elements, yet in all directions a new spirit and moving power is seen. The conquest of the country by a race of invaders is shown on many carvings, most of which are probably of the three centuries of unification, before the start of the dynastic history of the whole country. One of the most typical of these carvings is fig. 4, where the king is represented as a bull trampling upon his enemy. Other examples are given in figs. 51 to 54.
The whole character of the art is changed. Instead of the clumsy and spiritless figures of the prehistoric people, we meet with vigorous forms full of life and character. Perhaps one of the earliest is the hyaena (fig. 51); the slates are rather later, reaching down to the beginning of the first dynasty; and the figures in the round (19 to 22) show what a living and powerful art had suddenly sprung up and was developed under the early kings. The same growth is seen in the advance of glazing for important architectural use on a large scale. And the introduction and rapid development of hieroglyphic writing stamps the new age as the beginning of written history, the start of the conscious preservation by man of a regular record of his past acts.
This new growth of art rejoiced in its fresh found powers. It searched for the truth, it carefully observed anatomy, and - like a learner - it was proud of its knowledge, and emphasised the precise place of the muscles which it had traced out. For that very reason it is essentially a true art, without any of the slovenly substitutes for Nature which are termed conventions. It had no traditions to spoil it or hold it back: it was full of observation as the only method for its work. It is always simple and dignified, and shows more truth and precision than any art of a later age.
After the conscious study of Nature, the greatest step in any art is the deli Berate work for the sake of its own beauty, and not merely because it has to tell a story. It may be said that this is the-birth of true art; all before that merely consists of representations for another purpose. But work for the sake of beauty alone is art pure and simple, and this stage was reached at the very beginning of the history, in the beautiful carving of the palm tree and long-necked gazelles (fig. 52).