In the opening chapter we have considered the point of view from which the art of Egypt - like that of every other country - must be approached. The physical conditions which surround man will necessarily control his expression of thought and his perception of beauty. Forms and designs growing out of the conditions of one land will be inappropriate in another land, and lose most, or all, of their value if transported to different surroundings. Hence it is futile to attempt to contrast the art of one country directly with that of another. We might as well compare the beauty of a tropical garden with that of an alpine forest. The only ground of comparison is that of expressing the character and emotions of the artists; and that art which conveys the mental state of the people most readily is the most perfect art. This criticism leaves aside altogether the moral question of our appreciation of the people themselves; that does not belong to art but to ethics. And before we can begin to judge of that, we must know their surroundings, and the position in which they were conditioned in the world.
Our consideration here is with the art. When we look over the varied artistic expression of different races, we see that each people has seized some one excellence, growing out of its conditions, and adapted to its feelings and utilities. We can admire each excellence in turn, and see that in each of these qualities no other people has reached the same perfection. We must recognise that artistic expression is not only shown in sculpture and painting, but in literature, mechanical design, and the amenities and adaptation of the social organism.
In Egypt, as we have noticed, the ruling principles of the art are durability, strength, and dignity, and such were the features of the national character. In vain do we look in any other country for as great an expression of any of these principles. And, with the single exception of Greece, it was also supreme in precision of work. Its work was the true expression of character, and in perfect harmony with the nature of the country.
In Crete, so far as we can yet see, the pre-eminent facilities were the expression of motion, and the development of decorative form, and especially colour, upon pottery. Classical art never attained to the skill shown by the prehistoric art in these directions.
In Assyria, figure and animal sculpture stood very high in the best period; and the free adaptation of this to the purposes of life, as we see in the great development of friezes on the palace walls, was the distinguishing feature. No people seem to have lived amidst their art more than the Assyrians.
In classical Greece, the supremacy in vital sculpture and architectural proportion has so filled the attention of the modern world that the higher achievement of surrounding nations in other directions has been largely overlooked. In each of the special qualities that we note in other peoples the Greeks were their inferiors.
Rome was largely dominated by other races in its development; but in the art of civilisation and raising subject peoples, in the shaping of life and rule of law, it stood far above any ancient nation. In this - as in the arts elsewhere - we must look at its best period, when the impartiality and probity of its administrators brought all Greece under their sway.
The Celtic and Northern arts stood first in the rhythm of intricate decoration, and the subtlety of the curves; the ideal may not appeal to us, but no other region has ever produced such perfect and complex design.
In Medieval Europe, though sculpture scarcely reached the vitality of classical work, yet in expression it stood as high as in any school of art; and in the architecture the sense of expansion and aspiration - the spiritual aspect - reaches a higher level than man has touched elsewhere.
In Italy, the expression of art in painting was its great achievement, in harmony with the character of grace seen in other lines of Italian production.
The Persian and Mesopotamian civilisation triumphed in its glorious use of coloured glaze decoration, which has been carried westward to Syria and Rhodes, and still continues in the vast domes of coloured tiles in Spain.
In Arab art we meet the exquisite calm of geometrical design with various angles, which cannot be analysed at a glance like a Roman pavement: they arrest the eye to linger over them, to seek how they arise, and what they mean.
Further east, it is difficult for us to enter sufficiently into the fundamental feelings of the races, to enable us to value their art truly. But we can at least feel the grand sense of profusion when looking at the mountainous structures of the immense topes and pagodas of India, peopled with innumerable figures on countless stages. To the minds which produce and live amongst such forms, all other work must seem poor and bare. In Chinese art we can admire the fine adaptation and the sense of minute perfection in the articles before us, the dignity and reserve shown; and, in the literature, even a stranger to the land can feel the intimate harmony with Nature, and the mystic sense of mood in the mountains and trees and lakes around. Hardly any other poetry that we know touches the spirit of life so essentially.
The facile Japanese may well claim an unsurpassed skill and deftness in the painting of Nature, and a power to grasp the greatest amount of reality with the least means. Their perception of Nature in its strange and mysterious moods, which they show by the brush, is almost as penetrating as in the literature of China. Their exquisite sense of fitness, and of taste for beauty of workmanship, only makes us begin to realise the clumsiness of our own cast-iron performances.
To wander so far from Egypt may seem needless; and it would be so if the essentials of other arts were more familiar in English works. We have read lately of an alleged "tyranny of the Nile"; but the real tyranny over English minds for a century past has been the "tyranny of the Hellene." The one side of art in sculpture has obscured all others; and the English mind has, with its usual idolatry, made the standard of Greece its sole measure. We need to see that a dozen national arts have each been supreme over the others in some one aspect. Then we shall see how meaningless it is to contrast the excellence of one national art with another. Each country has to confess that it has only fully expressed one aspect out of many in the immense range of human life.
Now we can begin to see the real meaning of the so-called limitations of Egyptian art. Every people has had its limitations likewise, fitting it to its conditions; and if we look at them all impartially, and not by the standard of any one of them, we shall see that the deficiencies and limitations of most races are of much the same extent. If the Egyptian had tried to render not only character, but emotion also, he would have been defying his true conditions, as much as if we put a dado of Persian glazed tiles on the Parthenon. To refer this artistic perception to the uniformity of the Nile, is about as true as if we attributed any deficiencies in German art or literature to the prevalence of cold and snow, which is a far greater tyranny than the inundation. Every physical circumstance is a factor in human work, but none of them singly dominates it. There is no point in calling the Egyptian childish in his abilities, as every other nation has been equally childish in some other respects - the Roman in his abject submission to omens, the Greek in playing with words, the Assyrian in his inaccuracy, the Arab in his drawing. In short, there is no essential difference in the capacity for showing national life and feeling by the art of each country; and in the facility and truth of expression Egypt stands in the first rank of those lands where Art has exhibited the character of man.