The distinctive look of ancient Egyptian sculpture was determined largely by its function.
In order to understand ancient Egyptian art, it is vital to know as much as possible of the elite Egyptians' view of the world and the functions and contexts of the art produced for them. Without this knowledge we can appreciate only the formal content of Egyptian art, and we will fail to understand why it was produced or the concepts that shaped it and caused it to adopt its distinctive forms. In fact, a lack of understanding concerning the purposes of Egyptian art has often led it to be compared unfavorably with the art of other cultures: Why did the Egyptians not develop sculpture in which the body turned and twisted through space like classical Greek statuary? Why do the artists seem to get left and right confused? And why did they not discover the geometric perspective as European artists did in the Renaissance? The answer to such questions has nothing to do with a lack of skill or imagination on the part of Egyptian artists and everything to do with the purposes for which they were producing their art.
The majority of three-dimensional representations, whether standing, seated, or kneeling, exhibit what is called frontality: they face straight ahead, neither twisting nor turning. When such statues are viewed in isolation, out of their original context and without knowledge of their function, it is easy to criticize them for their rigid attitudes that remained unchanged for three thousand years. Frontality is, however, directly related to the functions of Egyptian statuary and the contexts in which the statues were set up. Statues were created not for their decorative effect but to play a primary role in the cults of the gods, the king, and the dead. They were designed to be put in places where these beings could manifest themselves in order to be the recipients of ritual actions. Thus it made sense to show the statue looking ahead at what was happening in front of it, so that the living performer of the ritual could interact with the divine or deceased recipient. Very often such statues were enclosed in rectangular shrines or wall niches whose only opening was at the front, making it natural for the statue to display frontality. Other statues were designed to be placed within an architectural setting, for instance, in front of the monumental entrance gateways to temples known as pylons, or in pillared courts, where they would be placed against or between pillars: their frontality worked perfectly within the architectural context.
Statues were normally made of stone, wood, or metal. Stone statues were worked from single rectangular blocks of material and retained the compactness of the original shape. The stone between the arms and the body and between the legs in standing figures or the legs and the seat in seated ones was not normally cut away. From a practical aspect this protected the figures against breakage and psychologically gives the images a sense of strength and power, usually enhanced by a supporting back pillar. By contrast, wooden statues were carved from several pieces of wood that were pegged together to form the finished work, and metal statues were either made by wrapping sheet metal around a wooden core or cast by the lost wax process. The arms could be held away from the body and carry separate items in their hands; there is no back pillar. The effect is altogether lighter and freer than that achieved in stone, but because both perform the same function, formal wooden and metal statues still display frontality.
Apart from statues representing deities, kings, and named members of the elite that can be called formal, there is another group of three-dimensional representations that depicts generic figures, frequently servants, from the nonelite population. The function of these is quite different. Many are made to be put in the tombs of the elite in order to serve the tomb owners in the afterlife. Unlike formal statues that are limited to static poses of standing, sitting, and kneeling, these figures depict a wide range of actions, such as grinding grain, baking bread, producing pots, and making music, and they are shown in appropriate poses, bending and squatting as they carry out their tasks.