Jaromir MALEK. 1999. _Egyptian Art_. London: Phaidon Press. Pp. 447 with appendices, glossary, map and photographs. ISBN 0-7148-3627-3 (hb).
This book by Egyptologist Jaromir Malek is a concise, affordable introduction to Egyptian art in ten compact chapters, each one of which is a self-contained essay. Malek begins with an ethnographic description of the ancient land and discussions of art and architecture in paleolithic and dynastic times. His text follows the standard chronology of Old, Middle and New Kingdoms. Separate chapters cover the Amarna interlude, Egypt under the Greeks and Romans and how Egyptian themes and images have been perceived and presented in Western art in the recent past.
Malek presents his synthesis of design and meaning through discussing numerous photographs gracing the text. But, he clearly separates the didactic and rhetorical use of design conventions from historical events and social life. He writes "...the artistic record should not be taken as a comprehensive statement about the mentality or daily preoccupations of the Egyptians" (p. 21). The Egyptians created their art primarily "...as a carrier of ideas" (p. 61) for the state and for religious institutions and used it to fulfill political and ritual functions. Little was created solely for its value as design or image.
_Egyptian Art_ is not a social history of Egypt, but Malek carefully places the evolution of design elements (hieroglyphics, images) and objects (statues, temples, tombs) in sequences based on dynastic dates. He briefly explains the rationale of important conventions and design choices; examples are why a human body is depicted in frontal view while a face is profiled, why a right arm may be attached to a left shoulder, and why color and cardinal direction are important compositional elements. The book, however, is not a monograph on canonical design rules or belief systems expressed in art. Malek wisely does not clutter the text with explanations of hieroglyphics and how to read them; they are treated as elements in a structural ensemble.
This book is a clear and thoughtful introduction to ancient Egyptian art by a specialist whose text speaks of experience and balanced judgment. Extensively illustrated, the book is a measured treatment of this technical subject and rewards patient reading. General readers and beginning students will like it. Notes on further reading are keyed to each chapter. A glossary, lists of deities and kings, a timeline and a map provide useful reference tools. To his credit, Malek does not wrestle with fantastic claims made by some students of ancient Egypt; he graciously dismisses them.
Both author and publisher faced trade-offs in bringing an affordable and useful book to market. The historical scope leaves scant room to completely explore pieces and buildings and the smallish page size diminishes the visual detail and impact of the plates. Nonetheless, this compact introduction to the stylistic and iconological evolution of Egyptian art is handsome and worthy.