Walk like an Egyptian: A visit to the British Museum

Nebamum hunting from the British Museum Egyptian collection 1350BC

Recently we managed (amongst the insane Boxing Day shopping ) to visit the British Museum in London, which is one of the museums in the world you must see. Plus it’s free so no excuses. (Of course you’ve got to get there. I’m going by train next time as I’ve still got ringing in the ears from the plane.) It has a mind boggling array of sculptures, paintings, relics, Michelangelo drawings, rosetta stone, mummies, sacred objects, mosaics, coins, and maps to enjoy. It’s endless. Wear comfortable shoes.

I just love Egyptian art so we went there first. My parents had a small bust of Nefertiti which was one of my favourite objects when I was a child. The timeless beauty, clarity and boldness of design and colour were the attractions and still are. It’s a combination of naturalism and stylization that will never go out of fashion.

Bust of Nefertiti, Egyptian Museum of Berlin
 ‘Bust of Nefertiti’ 1345 BC Limestone and stucco.

The Egyptian mummies are of course the hot place to go but no thanks. You feel like one of the mummified cats in there. I strolled around in the adjacent room containing paintings and other items from the tomb of Nebamun, (a wealthy Egyptian official from about 1350 BC) with a handful of people and found the famous wall painting fragment of Nebamun hunting in the marshes, shown at the top of this post.

 

Mummified cats at the British Museum

 

The painting shows Nebamun standing in a boat hunting birds with his wife Hatshepsut and their young daughter in a marshy Nile landscape. It’s a scene rich with visual details of local birds, fish and foliage painted in the classic Egyptian style (where everything is painted in it’s most characteristic angle, for example Nebamun’s profile is used even though his upper body is facing forward).

The painting conveys an ideal sense of the peace and harmony of life and nature. It’s a hunting scene without any blood or strain or death. And I suppose that’s the point. That’s what you’d want in the afterlife. To be in perfect health and surrounded by the things you love. The painted people and objects and writings were meant to help Nebamun in the afterlife and were meant to be only seen by him. Not any more.

The colours are still as fresh as a daisy amazingly and Nebamun looks particularly vibrant. The artist used the standard ancient Egyptian colour palette – soot for black, calcium sulphate for creamy white, ochres for red and yellow, and “frit” – a synthetic glassy material ground into powder – for blue and green.

Analysis by the British Museum showed that the figure of Nebamun is so vibrant because when the artist painted the skin on the figures he mixed red and white and painted a flat single layer, but when he painted Nebamun, he applied a layer of white, then added the red by stippling (to draw in dots or short strokes)- much like an Impressionist painter. (New Scientist January 2009) The past is present and vica versa. That’s art.

 

Short article on painting techniques in Ancient Egypt

3D interactive animation of the tomb-chapel of Nebamun

 

‘What a funny thing painting is. The abstract painters always insist on their connection with the visible reality, while the so called figurative artists insist that what they really care about, is the abstract qualities of life.’

Marlene Dumas

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