Below is a note I wrote while walking through a Metropolitan gallery one day. This is a note on art written by a physics student, so… Keep that in mind 🙂
The Greek visions of what makes an art piece life-like is well embodied in the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea. I believe the Greeks tried to find the most concentrated and abstract combination of lines and figures (while maintaining human shape) in order to form the most aesthetically pleasing, idealized life figure possible. While such classical arts can be regarded by many as boring, in the sense that if you’ve seen a few you’ve practically seen them all, it does provide us with interesting food for thought as to how the ancients went about creating life-like things in devotion to their vision and religions. Maybe it is possible to hypothesise that the practice of dividing the reality into certain perceptible and universal patterns and then recombining them into fully developed forms is a practice inherent in an intelligent mind. Such explanation might help in explaining certain traits displayed by humanity that were often relegated to a specific cultural zeitgeist or (god forbid) racial trait. Within such cultural environment it is easy to see how art and mathematics must have grown together hand in hand, to find the most ‘beautiful’ combinations of shapes and lines distilled into a axiom, a sort of unifying principle beyond human perception and the urge to create.
However, when I think of Greek sculptures, I can’t help but to think of the Egyptian sculptures at the same time. The Greek and Egyptian comparison is a most peculiar and interesting thing in my eyes. The geographical proximity is one thing, but the strange amalgamation of similarities and differences, almost as if they were fully aware of what each other were doing at one point but took pains to ignore it, is simply intriguing.
While Greek sculptures featured prominently the beauty of lines and shapes into certain idealized format, the Egyptian sculptures are unique in their combination of writing and art, to the point that it is often difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. It is possible to say that the vast majority of Egyptian sculptures almost seem to act as a background provided for the ‘story’ of the writing written on the sculpture, like how medieval monks illustrated their beautiful manuscripts with figures and strange designs to act as a backdrop for the written language. I thought at one moment that I could attribute such difference to the unique nature of Egyptian religion, but as I learned more I began to notice quite a few similarities between the Greek and the Egyptian methods of faith, and that in the end about the only difference I could attribute to religion came from geopolitical structure of the times, with the Egyptian empire under single rule and single ‘state religion’ of sorts, while the Greeks remained as a collection of city-states (more or less). So religion by itself could not have been the deciding factor in the difference between the Egyptian and the Greek approach.
I consider most forms of art to inherently desire to be born into the world. As such, I view both the Greek and Egyptian sculptures as a serious practice at some form of metamorphosis, and I consider that while Greeks found relish in geometric nature and relation of forms themselves, Egyptians found attribution of meaning in inanimate things to be the straightest path to bringing their sculpture to the most life-like state possible. It amazes me how we don’t have any knowledge about ancient Egyptian practice of writing fiction, albeit in some hieratic form.
Common practices of metamorphosis might be upon oneself (masks), or the others (ceremony), or the inanimate (sculptures and such). Shaping god into sculptures represent at wanting to communicate directly with these natural/inanimate things by giving them a human face (interface) and worshipping them (controllable environment). In that regard there is one key similarity and difference between the Greek practice and the Egyptian practice. The similarity is that natural forces are often represented in combination of an animal and a human. The difference is in how the animal and the human come together in each of the cultures. In Greek sculptures the metamorphosis of the natural into human occurs by giving an appropriate animal a human face. In Egyptian sculptures the result is somewhat opposite, giving animal face a human body. What is the true difference between the two? I can’t say I have an answer at this moment.