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May 2014

Ancient Egyptians and Greeks: Left Foot Forward!

Metropolitan Kouros, c. 590-580 BC. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Last fall, when I taught about the Archaic Period in ancient Greece, a student pointed out that many of the kouroi figures were standing with their left foot forward. We discussed how Egyptian figures often are striding forward with their left foot as well, and perhaps the Greeks simply adopted this composition due to compositional balance. But my student pressed, “But why the left foot? Was the left foot itself important for some type of reason?”

Menkaure and Queen (perhaps his wife Khamerernebty II), 2490-2472 BCE. Graywacke with traces of red and black paint, height 54.5″ (142.3 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I have puzzled over this student’s question for several months, particularly as to whether there is significance with the advancing left foot in Egyptian culture, and whether that same type of significance would have carried into Greek culture. We can see that a large number of Egyptian statues, including male and female figures, adopted the “left foot forward” stance; Menkaure and his Queen (shown above), the colossal statue of Queen Tuya (Vatican Museum), Karomama (Louvre), and wooden tomb statue of Tjeti (British Museum) are just a few of the many examples that exist. Some sources argue that Egyptian females are typically represented with both feet together, but I am increasingly wary of that generalization.1

Did the left foot hold special significance for the Egyptians, since this convention appears throughout ancient Egyptian history? I haven’t come to a conclusive answer by any means, but I have come across a few ideas. One idea was presented to me through Twitter: Ma Magdalena Ziegler (@ZiZiChan) wrote to me that for the Egyptians, the “left side is where the heart resides & it’s the house of will, emotions & consciousness, the center of life itself.” A similar idea was presented in an online forum on Egypt, where writer Al Waze-look King wrote, “The real meaning behind the position of the statue [with the advancing left leg] is esoteric. The left side of your body is where the heart is. The Egyptians believed you stepped with the left foot to trod out evil so the heart could proceed.” Another online forum (which actually is dedicated to Freemasons) claims that the left foot is represent the power of Isis, a fertility goddess who is associated with life and new beginnings.

Apart from these online exchanges, I haven’t come across any published scholarship to support these ideas, let alone any direct historical document that connects this idea to Egyptian sculpture itself. (If anyone knows of scholarship that supports these ideas or presents an alternative view, please let me know!) Regardless, though, I do think that the question of the left foot needs to be taken further when it comes to Egyptian influence on archaic Greek sculpture. The connection between Egyptian sculpture and ancient kouroi/korai has long been established by scholars.2 Scholars even argue that some kouroi (specifically the Metropolitan Kouros, shown at the top of this post) was based off of the Egyptian canon of proportions.3

Kouroi examples, culminating with the Kritios Boy from the Early Classical period. Note that the “Piraeus Apollo” is a “transitional sculpture” that is different from the others, since his right foot advancing.

But did the ancient Greeks adopt the “left foot forward” stance for similar reasons as the Egyptians, if Egyptians had symbolic reasoning in the first place? Unsurprisingly, I suppose, I haven’t found a conclusive answer either. If anything, the evidence that I found is contradictory to my Egyptian ideas and a little bit too late historically to coincide with many of the archaic kouroi: Aristotle (writing in the Late Classical period), wrote that the right side of the body was the naturally stronger and more active than the left!4

Archaeologist and art historian Gisela Richter, who published technical analyses on the kouroi and korai, notes the tradition of the advancing left foot in several types of kouroi and korai.5 However, Richter is quite silent as to the reasoning of compositional stance, only suggest that an evolving interest in naturalism and the artist’s desire to suggest “the asymmetry of the two sides of the figure” led to the forward placement of the left leg.6

The Euthydikos Kore, c. 480 BC. Acropolis Museum, Athens. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Dorieo

When I started to write this post, I hoped to come up with specific ideas and reasons behind the leg positions of the kouroi and korai. Instead, I hope this post will serve more as a forum and generator of ideas as to the stances of these statues. If you have any ideas as to why left leg was positioned as advancing in either Egyptian or Greek sculpture, please share!

Korai examples, ranging from c. 640 BCE to c. 480 BCE. Several of these korai have their feet placed close together. The exception is the c. 500 BCE kore, who has an advancing left leg

I also may also never find a reason as to why some korai are depicted with their legs together (see above). Is there an “active male” vs. “passive female” being expressed through some of these works of art? I’d love to learn what others think on this topic, too.

1 For example, more “left foot forward” female statues can be seen in Gisela M. A. Richter, Korai: Archaic Greek Maidens (London: Phaidon, 1968), Plate I.

2 Ibid., p. 4. See also Gisela M. A. Richter, Kouroi: Archaic Greek Youths: A Study of the Development of the Kouros Type in Greek Sculpture (London: Phaidon, 1960), p. 2.

3 For some discussion on the Metropolitan Kouros, see http://academic.reed.edu/humanities/110tech/kouroi2.html. For a more comprehensive analysis of kouroi proportions, see Eleanor Guralnick, “The Proportions of Kouroi” in The American Journal of Archaeology 82, no. 4 (1978): 461-472. Article available online here: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/504635?uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=21104058982547

4 Geoffrey Earnest Richard Lloyd, Methods and Problems in Greek Science: Selected Papers (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1991), p. 44. Source available online here: http://books.google.com/books?id=zCg4AAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA43&ots=BnHcQOB55o&dq=greek%20left%20side%20of%20body&pg=PA44#v=onepage&q&f=false

5 See Richter, Korai: Archaic Greek Maidens, p. 4. See also Richter, Kouroi: Archaic Greek Youths, p. 25. It should also be noted that several Greek korai are depicted with their feet together.

6 Richter, Kouroi: Archaic Greek Youths, p. 2-5, 21.

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East and West: The Edo Period in Japan and the Baroque Period in Europe

Due to my involvement as a volunteer at a local art museum, I’ve been learning and thinking a lot about non-Western art lately. I feel really incompetent when it comes to the Asian and African art – especially in terms of building historical context – so I feel a little out of my comfort zone. I’m excited to learn more about these artistic traditions, though.

In order for me to better contextualize and understand these new historical and artistic periods, I try to mentally cross-list each non-Western period with what is happening contemporaneously in European history. It also has been helpful for me to learn about ways that the Westerners interacted with these different cultures, so I can understand each country and time better within its history at large. So far, I feel like I have been able to best remember things that happen during the Edo Period of Japan (1603-1868), because that period coincides with the Baroque period (as well as Romanticism, Neoclassicism, and Realism). It’s been fun for me to find parallels with Baroque art and the early Edo period.

One parallel that I have found between the early Edo period and the Baroque style is the interest in light. The cultural and artistic approaches to light, however, are quite different. In the Baroque period, light was used as an illusionistic painting in order to create drama through tenebrism. Artists created sculptures and architecture which utilized natural light in order to create dramatic visual contrasts of areas which were brightly lit and cast in shadow.

Kano Shigenobou, “Bamboo and Poppies,” early 17th century. Pair or six-panel screens; ink, color and gold on paper. Seattle Art Museum

In the Edo period, the interest in light was quite different and practical. Due to the introduction of Western of firearms in Japan in the 16th century, the Japanese began to build fortress palaces with thick walls.1 The interiors of these fortress palaces was very dark, especially in contrast to the airy, filtered light which permeated through the paper walls of their previous palaces. The Japanese favored indoor screens that were decorated with gold in order to better illuminate the interiors of their new, darkened fortresses. A few examples of such screens are the Shigenobou screen shown above, the Shigenobou screen “Wheat, Poppies, and Bamboo” at the Kimbell Art Museum, as well as the Crow Screen at the Seattle Art Museum. The reflective gold surface provided more light, but I think the gold also is visually dramatic and stunning too, which makes a nice connection with the Baroque style in Europe. In fact, even the flat gold background has some parallel with the dark or ochre monochromatic backgrounds that are found in Caravaggesque paintings.

Hishikawa Moronobu, Beauty Looking Back, 17th century. Tokyo National Museum

The popularity of woodblock prints during the Edo period also is easy for me to remember, due to some parallels with what happens in the West at the same time. During the Edo period, wealthy Japanese merchants could afford to have art, particularly prints. The widespread accessibility of art reminds me a bit of the wealthy middle class and rise of the open art market in Holland during the 17th century. In Japan, a wealthy merchant might decide to purchase a print of a famous geisha or actor. Such subject matter is found in Ukiyo-e prints (“pictures of the floating world”), which were popular between the 17th and the 19th centuries. The artist Hishikawa Moronobu is one of the earliest to have made these types of prints in the 17th century (see one such example above). The accessibility of woodblock prints continued to rise in the subsequent century; technological advancements enabled the printing of multiple colors on a single sheet in 1765.

Do you know of other chronological or artistic parallels between Western and non-Western artistic periods? I’m familiar with chinoiserie and japonisme from a Western perspective, for example – this time I’m trying to make parallels to help me specifically remember points about Asian or African art.

1 “SAMART: Golden Screens of the Kano School,” SAMBLOG of the Seattle Art Museum, accessed May 15, 2014, http://samblog.seattleartmuseum.org/2011/11/samart-golden-screens-of-the-kano-school/

 

 

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.