Art History: Prehistoric Art

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Professors tend to teach the idea that art history is a linear, chronological progression.  I have a different theory about teaching art history that we can learn from living and historical cultures, for instance the Navajo and the people of the Pacific Northwest coast of the Americas, we can actually figure out some things about prehistoric culture and artifacts.  We do have a living written record of what the Navajo and the people of the Pacific Northwest coast of the Americas, but we don’t have this about prehistoric “stone age” cultures.  No written explanation up gives us a framework that we can use and we can apply the prehistoric art so prehistoric art. 

During the 1700 and 1800’s most Native Americans living on the American Continent still do not use technologies such as machines and smelting metals.  This level of technology closely approximates what Paleolithic and Neolithic humans living in Europe had.   Since we know so much about the Native Americans we can assume the two may have developed some similar cultural aspects and use this information to interpret prehistoric art and artifacts.

Prehistory is divided up into several different periods and geographic locations.  This is kind of a problem when you're studying it another classes and art historians have different time periods.  Although these are before the common era.  Let's define the names. 

Pa·leo·lith·ic \"pā-lē-ə-'li-thik, esp Brit "pa-\ adj [ISV] (1865) : of or relating to the earliest period of the Stone Age characterized by rough or chipped stone implements

The word, “prehistoric” just means before the historic era (before we started recording history).  The term paleolithic means paleo (paleo is Latin for old) and lithos or lithic means stone in Latin. Therefore the combination of the two words, Paleolithic translates as old Stone Age. The Old Stone Age dates vary widely. The range of dates for the Old Stone are sometimes 600,000 to 10,000 or 35,000 to 7000 depending on who you're studying with and what geographic region you're looking at. 

Me·so·lith·ic \"me-zə-'li-thik\ adj [ISV] (1866) : of, relating to, or being a transitional period of the Stone Age between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic

They range of dates from 600,000 to 7000 BCE of the Mesolithic era is different depending on where you study it and what region of the globe. In the Near East (Iran and Mesopotamia) the  is from 7000-6000 and the in Europe it goes from 7000-4000.

neo·lith·ic \"nē-ə-'li-thik\ adj (1865)
1 cap: of or relating to the latest period of the Stone Age characterized by polished stone implements
2 : belonging to an earlier age and now outmoded

The word, Neo is like the character’s name from the movie the Matrix, “neo” means “new” and that's the name of the New Stone Age in Europe. goes from about 4000 BCE to about 1500 BCE and the Neolithic era in the Near East (Modern day Turkey, Iraq and Iran) starts a little bit earlier at 6000 BCE.  Neolithic means that they have Stone Age technology they don’t use metal tools they use stone and wood.  Textiles and clothing are made from wool, grass, hemp and straw.  Just keep that in mind when you're studying that this doesn't mean that they were stupid.  It doesn't mean that they were unintelligent.  It doesn't mean that they wouldn't have been able to use the tools that we have or were the stereotypical caveman we see in Geico commercials. 

At first Europeans who invaded the Americas had a supremacist tendency to think that Native Americans were somehow “primitive” and “uncivilized” because they had a different culture and did not use machines and for the most part did not use metals.  (Metals were found at the Anasazi and some sites from the Pacific Northwest Coast). 

So the next thing is to take a look at the items that are left behind.  We have some paintings , tools, and small figurines made from clay and stone.  The problem being that anything wood or leather would have deteriorated and just disappeared.  So, what we have left are the stone items, and even some things that were fired (baked in a fire to harden).

This sculpture titled Woman from Willendorf is often of misnamed as the Venus of Willendorf  (Willendorf is a place in Europe) is a European Stone Age piece of work now housed in the natural resources Museum in Vienna.   It's only about 4 inches four and three-quarter inches tall and it was coated with some ocher oxide minerals (a reddish orange powdery kind of substance.)

I have a heading at the top this lecture as Prehistory and Fetish because I think this thing was probably possibly a fetish kind of figure meaning that light people necessarily focused on it for religious purposes or sexual purposes.  Maybe as a sort of fetish that would be used to direct some kind of spiritual energy what I'm suggesting that this could've been a fertility figure but the name Venus is probably wrong because Venus is the goddess of love not necessarily the goddess of fertility.   She could almost be the Greek goddess Demeter or something like that.  If you want to use the Greek mythological term to this is a small thing and if we look closely at it.  We'll see that across the top of the figure will start with a formal analysis the hair is actually looks kind of like a knit cap. There's just a little hole that could be a mouth hole.   If we move down the figure you see that there are arms that are engaged with the bodies that are carved and the hand and arms are draped across the breasts.  The breasts and stomach and the genitals are probably and exaggeration.  And the arms and legs are deemphasized.  The feet are broken off it's made out of limestone and it’s painted.  We refer to the process of making this thing is a subtractive sculptural process, which means you carve away stuff.  Her arms are engaged across the body probably so that they would get broken off because it hard to carve arms that would be extended separate from the body. The feet were broken off because they did extend too far.   

Interpreting these exaggerations of features and the de-emphasis of others from an iconographic or symbolic point of view we can extrapolate about what we know about 18th and 19th century Native American Cultures.

The art we looked at from the Navajo, Anasazi Pacific Northwest cultures usually tells a story and also depicts things that are important in terms of the storytelling.   Art can also be something to transform or transport someone like the Bukwus mask from the Kwakawakwakh winter dance festival can transform one of the hamatasa dancers.  This is probably an item that was used to tell the story or he could use at for didactic purposes.  It probably represents desirable characteristics in a woman.  She is large, well fed, healthy and can bear children.  This may be part of the reason why this was created: that it's a fertility figure and that this woman would have been able to have babies and maintain baby because she had enough excess body weight. 

When I was going to school  I thought that this is the only one that was ever found but there are other Venuses that were found throughout Europe. We have on the left-hand side the Venus of the only from Dolni Vestonice and that's in Czechoslovakia.   I think it's kind of interesting because I was taught that Africa was the cradle of civilization yet we have these objects that we found in Europe.  Both of them are of heavy women both of them are probably used for similar purposes.  They are probably fetishistic symbols but they could just be a plaything for children: they could just in the doll.

Aside from the fact that it's so similar visually to the Willendorf figure is that it's made out of different materials.  The Dolni Vestonice figure is made from molded clay and bone ash. My suspicion is that Clay and bone ash were combined in a fire pit or maybe it was molded and fired in a fire pit.  It's also very possible that they found a hard semisoft material as a byproduct of the ash and clay found in the bottom of a fire pit and carved it.  So in this instance it could've been additive meaning that it could have been molded out of the semisoft clay and carbon ash and then fired again.  That's why it's so well preserved or could've been made using the subtractive process. 

Let's get back to comparing and contrasting these “Venuses” with the Kachina doll from the Hopi culture.  The kachina was used by the Hopi to instruct or teach children about the gods and goddesses that they would be seeing in a performance or a ritual.  It was not worshipped.  The kachina like the Venus is small and therefore transportable.   It's only about may be 6 inches to a foot long and the same thing with the Venus.  It's reasonable to extrapolate from what we know of the kachina that the Venus figures served a similar function.  We don't know.  We'll never know until we get a time machine so that's the biggest drag about our history.  Sometimes you just don't know for certain and never will. 

On the left-hand side we have another piece of prehistoric art.  This bison which is only about 4 inches long and in a way it's also very similar to this Kwakiutl knife handle that we found earlier this bison From La Madeleine, France is very similar in design to the way that the Haida knife handle was carved.  It started probably as just a small chunk of bone that they decided to preserve as much of the bone as possible and not carve away too much of it.  The shape of the bone may have suggested to the artist the outline of a bison.  The artist would have been aware that any delicate extensions like legs could be easily broken off.   It's an interesting idea that the materials and the shape of the materials suggested the form to the artist.  However, we don't really know what the function was.  It may have just been a work of art for the sake of beauty or a religious fetish. 

fe·tish alsofe·tich \'fe-tish also 'fē-\ n [F & Pg; F fétiche, fr. Pg feitiço, fr. feitiço artificial, false, fr. L facticius factitious] (1613)
1 a : an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner ; broadly: a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence b : an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion :
prepossession c : an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression
2 : a rite or cult of fetish worshipers
3 :

It also could be a fetishistic item in a way for instance think of kids to put posters the celebrities in their locker on their wall and it's almost like they have little altar to that celebrity and by owning in effigy or a picture of that celebrity icon they have some sort of connection to that icon.  Have you ever taken a lock of hair from someone? Perhaps a mother preserves a lock of hair from her baby. The hair is symbol but it is also like holding a little piece of that person.  If you have a representation of something like for instance a bison it could be a representation of something that was important to them and by holding onto it.  They might've been able to feel that they have some kind of control over real bison so those are some of the reasons why small sculptures from the Paleolithic era might've been made. I think that I am it's interesting to take a look at the motivations from the cultures that we know a lot more about who share similar technology and apply what we know about those cultures to the prehistoric eras. 

The next era is the Paleolithic period.  The dates range from 600,000 to 10,000 (some scholars believe it's 35,000 to 7000).   The first cave they were to look at is him Lascaux in France but I think it's important also discuss some other cave paintings arena be looking at a place called Altamira.

In 1870’s in Altamira Spain, a noble Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola discovered some paintings on a wall.   His daughter Maria is credited with calling out, “toro toro!” Maria discovered the paintings on the wall mainly because she was short enough to see them first.  When the nobleman attempted to present his findings with the claim that they were made during the Paleolithic period, the scientists of the day didn’t believe him and claimed that they were either recent paintings or fakes.  Later on these paintings were proven real because of other caves that were discovered and in most of these caves there were mineral deposits over the paintings.  These deposits looked a like a varnish and were made of the same minerals that formed stalactites and stalagmites.  Scientists and archeologists were able to prove that the glaze of these minerals would have taken thousands of years to form on top of the paintings. Like the noble’s daughter Maria at Altamira, it certainly is an Alice in Wonderland story in how a couple unsuspecting kids found the Paleolithic Hall of the Bulls in Lascaux. 

Lascaux was discovered in the 1940’s when a couple of kids chasing after their dog fell in a hole.  The Hall of the Bulls a significant is a prehistoric picture gallery that shows horses, bulls, and other animals painted over the course of hundreds years and in an almost haphazard and overlapping manner.  I think first we need to do is look at how is painted and address the formal concerns of how these things actually look.   If we do a close analysis of how they look visually then maybe we can make discover meaning by making connections to other works of art we’ve looked at.

There's no overall cohesive composition planned in terms of the paintings themselves.  It seems a rather haphazard and also doesn't seem as if there is meant to be the illusion of space or depth.  The picture plane was not initially planned and most likely these paintings were overlapped over several hundreds of years.  It was probably a place where people would come back to and keep ritually and repetitively painting and drawing these animals.   There are prehistoric horses also bison and other animals that might be considered useful for food. 

Almost all the animals were depicted in profile views and the reason for that probably is because it’s easier to paint things in profile.  It's more identifiable. Modern day artists know that faces in profile are easier to draw then a face in a frontal view.  The technique and materials used to paint them shows well observed identifiable animals and even a tradition and complex understanding of what materials to use as paint (the medium). 

It seems like initially what the cave painters created an outline and then they would use colors to fill in and provide a little bit of shading and to show some of the musculature of the animals.  The pigments that they used were most likely charcoal, manganese, ochres, and iron oxides.  Those pigments are basically naturally occurring metals or were charcoal you can get from fire pit.   They would probably mix these pigments (colors) with water (also called a vehicle) and it would make a watercolor paint or they might also add as the vehicle or medium a animal fat which would make it stick and is essentially making a sort of oil painting. 

There isn't really much attention paid to light, shadow there's not light source there's no, what we call chiaroscuro or shading across the figures.  We have a simplified, stylized and diagrammatic portrayal of the animal itself.  We are not really sure why these animals are painted or why they were painted in a cave or if they were painted other places but we have some guesses that are based in a contextual analysis of the environment and what we know about other similar cultures. 

Paleolithic cave paintings like Lascaux were sealed for centuries until some kind of seismic shift reopened them.  These caves with consistent temperature and very little environmental fluctuations were time capsules that not only preserved the paintings but animal bones and some clay artifacts.   

Lascaux was partially uncovered as you can see in 1940 it was just a small opening. In the Paleolithic era it was an open entrance that probably was a long hallway that led down into the main hall.  The opening was gradually covered over by sediment and by erosion and essentially the cave itself was sealed.  Caves like this are rare but many of them were found in France probably because of the geology of the region.  The unique environment of the caves have a temperature that is very consistent and low humidity.  I don't think you can go into Lascaux I anymore because if you do your breath carries humidity and fosters the growth of fungus and mold.  Fungus and humidity can eat away or deteriorate the paint. 

These two photographs show what the entrance looked like and the scale of what it looked like as well.  The cave is a very long structure and has several rooms. Probably the most important rooms is the Hall of the Bulls but we’ll also be looking inside one of the smaller chambers at a painting of the Bird Headed Man with the Bison. 
The almost random and overlapping way in which the animals were painted indicates that the cave was returned to again and again and paintings were added over hundreds or thousands of years.  Perhaps the main subject of animals is caused by the fact that humans relied on these animals for survival.  We do not know if they were worshipping the animals or doings some sort of voodoo like sympathetic magic or if they were a kind of textbook or possibly even just something like a prehistoric form of graffiti.  Perhaps prehistoric peoples wanted to have a sacred space and wanted to decorate it with important stories like the walls of churches paintings or the walls of kivas.  It's reasonable to assume that these caves were sacred places because of how often they were returned to.  We need to look at the iconography or subject matter in order to come up with more reasonable guesses as to why these paintings were made.  Something that might help is to compare these wall paintings to the art of the Anasazi and Kwakawakwakh peoples. 

The Yeii spirits and we looked at from the Anasazi and Navajo were spirits that went back and forth between the spiritual world and the physical world and they also had some sort of influence.  There are depictions of hands in a lot of paintings in most cultures and hands represented human presence.  “I have my hand on it.” And “I've got my finger on it.” Are the kind of clichés that applies to this as well.  So we look at these paintings they probably are representations of things that either were historical stories or things that they hoped would happen. 

 The depiction of what can be interpreted as a wounded bison attacking a man maybe something else entirely.  However some evidence for this is if you look closer at the picture you see that the bison has its guts pouring.  Those are his intestines coming out of the bottom and then we see this man laying on the ground he has sort of a bird head on him.  It could be that's how they drew heads and but we also what looks a bit like a chicken on a stick.  Then there are several arrows around it also looks like he has an erection or a penis or he could have a sheath on the end of his penis. 

It is possible that we look at other cultures.  For instance, in the culture of the Australian aborigines and in Papua New Guinea they do wear ornaments like this to make their genitals look larger and that makes them look tougher.  The bird on the stick could be a representation of a shaman’s rattle or it could be some sort of magical stick that gives him the power of the bird similar to a pahos stick from the Navajo culture.  We also see scattered around the bison and the bird headed man are arrow like forms.  These “arrows” that could be representations of spears or something else.  However, we don't know what the conventions of visual illusion were at this point in time.  We have no way of telling whether or not the bison and bird man were painted at the same time or even if the artist intended them to relate to one another.  However, we know that in the Anasazi kiva painting seems to indicate that this would make sense.  

The next cave we’re going to look at is kind of interesting cave because it shows the human hand.  This cave at Cosquer Cave, France dates from around 25,000 BCE.  It was found a by some scuba divers who were going caving in sort of a form of underground climbing and exploration called spelunking.  The explorers dove under the water into subterranean water filled caves.  At one point they surfaced into an air filled caves and then they found these two spray-painted hands on the walls.  Some of the hands are actually missing fingers. 

We think that they might've made these hands by first getting a mouthful of paint, perhaps charcoal mixed with water and or saliva.  Then the artist would simply hold a hand up against the wall taking a reed tube and through the straw like tube, almost like a spitball, spraying the paint around the hand.  This would leave a kind of airbrushed outline.  However, that doesn't explain why the hands are missing fingers.

Some possible explanations for why the hands are missing fingers could be closely related to things like for instance the Yakusa that we know about from Japan when someone screws up they had to take a finger also offering a part of your body or making a sacrifice.  For instance in the Mayan culture they actually would give some of their blood as a sacrifice to the gods of Xibulba (the underworld).  Mayan nobles would injure themselves and then burn the blood by piercing their tongues and genitals.  There's also another possible explanation that it's very easy to lose fingers when you're trying to fight a wild animal and when you're killing animals and at a time when they didn't have caves, but when they didn't have weapons.  They might've actually lost fingers in battles with animals were with each other.  Maybe they just had fists made and they were blowing the paint around the mouth but it occurs so often that it must have significance. 

If you look closely at these to this comparison of the cave painting from Lascaux and we look at the painting from the Anasazi culture and their couple of things that you see that they have in common.  First of all their animals and the animals are animals that would naturally occurring in their environment.  They also at times hold staffs or spears.  There are bird images associated with people.  There are people that have regalia on or costume that indicate power.   

Possibly these two cultures were not so far removed from each other in terms of their motivations and their desires. I think that all human beings pretty much are driven by very similar things and I think it's very important to acknowledge that we've learned about earlier cultures that we know from the historic era for instance the Navajo, Kwakawakwakh, Haida, and Hopi cultures might help us to decipher at least some of the possible reasons why these cave paintings existed and how they came about it also explains why the paintings were so diagrammatic because they might've been used to clearly communicate ideas

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