Art & Culture

Why does ancient Egypt’s distinctive art style make everything look flat?

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In 1986, the band “The Bangles” sang about “all the old paintings on the tombs” where the figures they depict are “walking like an Egyptian.” Though he was neither an art historian nor an Egyptologist, songwriter Liam Sternberg was referring to one of the most striking features of ancient Egyptian visual art — the depiction of people, animals and objects on a flat, two-dimensional plane. Why did the ancient Egyptians do this? And is ancient Egypt the only culture to create art in this style?

Drawing any object in three dimensions requires a specific viewpoint to create the illusion of perspective on a flat surface. Drawing an object in two dimensions (height and breadth) requires the artist to depict just one surface of that object. And highlighting just one surface, it turns out, has its advantages.

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