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Strike a Pose: Composite

Published

Sep 13, 2018

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N. de Garies Davies

Each installment of Strike a Pose features one of art history’s most seminal postures. Mediums range from sculpture to oils and everything in between. This week we discuss the meaning behind one that put a new twist on perspective: Composite (explore the corresponding playlist).

Ipuy and Wife Receive Offerings from Their Children (facsimile)Norman de Garis Davies
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How a given society is represented in art has an inestimable effect on how we imagine its people. Consider “Walk Like an Egyptian” by The Bangles, the 1986 hit single that took for granted, well, how Ancient Egyptians walk. Of course we know their stride was just like ours—with their arms to their side and their torsos facing forward—and yet a certain image persists, that of the “composite pose.”

Painted Stela of DjedbastetUnknown
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Except it wasn’t art, or at least our basic definition of what art is. That is, it wasn’t to be consumed by the public, but one viewer: the dead (or the soul of the dead). These infamous images were drawn on the inside of tombs; they are only with us today through the work of archaeologists. (One such team, Egyptologists Norman de Garis Davies and Nina M. Davies, created facsimiles of Egyptian wall paintings in the early 20th century, using a technique that allowed them to copy the brushstrokes and color of the images.)

These works were originally commissioned to tell the story of the deceased, and to give its soul an earthly home in the afterlife. And they were not created equally. The details in each drawing signified hierarchical status and class. Those in the lower class were often painted poorly, given inaccurate proportions, or left unfinished. Pharaohs, of course, were depicted as luxuriously as possible, with sculptures and reliefs adorning their resting places. (Some were even mummified so that their souls would be able to reanimate their bodies.)

Fragment of Wall Painting From the Tomb of SebekhotepUnknown
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But virtually all of these images share something in common: the composite pose. Also called the twisted perspective, this is when the torso faces the viewer, while the face and the rest of the limbs face forward (to the viewer’s side). Not only does it capture all of the distinctive angles of a person—eyes, nose, chin, torso, arms, legs—it lends itself to an easier rendition. (Try drawing a foot from the side, and then from its front.) It also has the effect of providing a static, stable, and enduring image of the soul.

While they make for lasting images of Ancient Egypt, it’s crucial to remember the context of these works: they were not meant to be public, let alone preserved for museum exhibitions to come. The Egyptian tombs give us a new way to consider Marshall McLuhan’s famous epigram, “the medium is the message”, presenting a medium that precluded message. That only one viewer was meant to enjoy the drawings—a viewer who would have a personal connection with it—makes it a singular example in art history, one that’s hard to take in with the same critical eye we apply to all other art.

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Strike a Pose: Composite