Prehistoric painting

My earliest childhood ambition (at least in response to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?") was to become a paleontologist.  This fascination with prehistory arose in part, as it must with many children, in response to some well chosen dinosaur toys.  I learned to say and spell the names of the various species and staged mighty, improbable battles on plateaus made of sofa cushions.   At some point, a field trip to the La Brea tar pits catalyzed my interest and I began to read whatever I could find not only about Mesozoic megacritters but also about the Pleistocene scene.  I was particularly interested in the edge cases — misapprehensions such as "brontosaurus" and mysteries such as the Neanderthal/Cro-Magnon nexus.

Eventually, this obsession gave way to another (and then another, and then…).  I never returned to it in a serious or specializing way, but I continue to feel the allure of prehistoric artifacts and the poorly understood cultures that produced them.  Interpreting art historical objects unaccompanied by textual or verbal cues — interpreting them only in relation to site-specific material factors and explicitly speculative cultural models — has a way of infusing complex questions of methodology with simplicity, clarity, and humility.

I recently received a copy of the latest (8th) edition of Janson's History of Art and since I happened to have an earlier edition (4th) on hand, I took interest in what had changed in just shy of twenty years.  The quantity of color photographs, like the price, has increased dramatically.  The production values are better.  The earlier text was Anthony Janson's adaptation of his father's famous work.  In the preface, the son embraces Horst Janson's traditional historiography and (with a profession of sympathy if not regret) fends off the encroaching "new art history".  In contrast, the new volume has been revised or rewritten by a committee of six specialists; after a score of years the vitality and value of the (by-now-not-so-) new art history is a settled matter.

The rise of more granular specializations and more contextually and semiotically sensitive interpretive systems in art history is apparent even in the way the authors have reorganized the book.  The 4th edition divides the entire 20th century into four century-long chapters based on medium: painting, sculpture, architecture, and photography.  The 8th addresses the 20th century chronologically and thematically with chapters on Modernism before the first world war, art between the wars, the post-war transition to postmodernism, and art since 1980.  In the 4th, the Rococo and Neoclassicism are treated briefly as supplements, the former postfixing the Baroque and the latter prefixing Romanticism.   In the 8th, each receives its own weighty chapter.  Northern Renaissance art is handled in the 4th edition as an awkward exception to the humanistic drift of Italy's Renaissance.  The 8th, in contrast, pays considerable attention to the north's rich formal, expressive, and technological innovations.

These differences speak to developments in the academic discipline.  But the most striking difference between the earlier and later editions of Janson's survey is the handling of Prehistoric art.  In the 4th edition, in the chapter called "Prehistoric and Ethnographic Art," Janson asserts boldly that

[T]he Old Stone Age gave way to new developments… except for a few particularly inhospitable areas where the Old Stone Age way of life continued because there was nothing to challenge or disturb it.  The Bushmen of South Africa and the aborigines of Australia are– or were until very recently– the last remnants of this primeval phase of human development" (79).

Later in the chapter, he maintains that

"There are… a few human groups for whom the Old Stone Age lasted until the present day.  Modern survivors of the Neolithic are far easier to find.  They include all the so-called primitive societies of tropical Africa, the islands of the South Pacific, and the Americas….  The term 'ethnographic' … stands for a way of life that has passed through the Neolithic Revolution but shows no signs of evolving in the direction of the 'historic' civilizations" (86).

In the space of these twin claims, Janson moves smoothly between examples from Lascaux and Cernavoda on the one hand and examples of Ife work from Nigeria, an Oceanic mask, and Navajo sand painting… on pretty much the same hand.

The historical teleology and rigid cultural Darwinism of these claims seem crude and obtuse in retrospect.  And since the conceit of the volume as a whole is to present a story of art motivated by this model of "progress", the remainder is tainted by reductionism.  Drawing easy equivalences between prehistoric and non-European art (Plastered skulls from Jericho alongside Ife portrait heads?  Really?) marks the 4th edition (of 1991) as a work whose argument and story are both best consigned to the early twentieth century.  From the new 8th edition's chapter on Prehistoric art, this body of "ethnographic" material has been entirely and properly removed.  Simple, clear, and humble.

Part of what makes the study of Prehistoric art in the early twenty-first century so different, so appealing, is the growing recognition that these undocumented cultures must be taken on their own terms with some expectation that the complexity of those terms might surprise us.  Evidence, technology, and methodological rigor converge on this point.

With respect to evidence, nothing speaks more eloquently than the spelunker Jean-Marie Chauvet's discovery, in 1994, of startlingly naturalistic pictorial art in a cave complex in Ardèche.  Radiometric dating places the older images within the complex at about 30,000 BC, approximately twice as old as the famous paintings of Lascaux.

Chauvet Cave, Horses and Aurochs, Wikimedia
Chauvet Cave, Horses and Aurochs, ca. 30000 BC, Wikimedia
Chauvet Cave, Lionesses, Wikimedia
Chauvet Cave, Lionesses, ca. 30000 BC, Wikimedia


The picture made by hand is like a fingerprint. Just as the latter is an index of the finger that left it, so a picture may be construed as a mindprint, an index of the choicemaking and values evident in the material practice of picture making. What can we make of that mind? We cannot safely assume, for example, that the lionesses depicted in the Chauvet Cave form a coherent group, that they are one picture rather than many, that they form a pride, that they're on the prowl, and so forth. Nothing we know justifies these interpretive interpolations. But we can observe, of one lioness or another, that the person who drew these had obviously looked quite carefully at animals of this kind in nature. The artist was not only someone strongly motivated to study them, but likewise someone driven to practice and develop the skill of making pictures of them. And the artist wanted those pictures not only to signify the lionesses but to look like them. But why? The time and labor implicit in this artistic achievement implies a supporting and sustaining culture that not only enabled the great expenditure of time and labor, but very likely joined the artist(s) in prizing the lionesses, and the pictures of lionesses, with some fervency.

The ivory Lion-Human sculpture, dating from about the same time as the Chauvet Cave paintings but recovered from the Stadel Cave in the Swabian Alps, tells a similar tale.  Together, these cultural clues whisper a tantalizing, not quite indiscernible message about how the cultures that crafted them regarded themselves and regarded the Queen of Beasts.

It is, in fact, characteristic of paleolithic painting to give little attention to the human form and spectacular attention to the grand beasts of nature.  Why this might be so has of course been the object of much speculation.  Several decades back, it was fashionable to suppose that images of critters constituted a sort of hunting magic.  The notion was that depicting an animal enabled the tribe to lay claim to it in advance of a hunt, a difficult undertaking in which any advantage was welcome.  More careful attention to the kinds of animals, to the ways in which they're presented on the rock surfaces, to the kinds of subterranean spaces reached, and to the tools (mostly oil lamps) discovered there has turned scholarly opinion toward less simple, less obvious, and in many ways more evidentially grounded speculations.  Among these, David Lewis-Williams's The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art is noteworthy for its rigor and plausibility in a domain of discourse riddled with uncertainty and unknown unknowns.

The human form is rare in paleolithic painting, but it is not entirely absent.  Indeed, it plays a fascinating role in at least two cases.  One, in the Chauvet Cave, gives us a more vivid sense of just who might've been making this art.  The other, in the Lascaux Cave complex, offers what might be the earliest pictorial story with a human protagonist.

The Chauvet cave offers not only many generations of mimetic imagery, but also a number of surfaces that include spots and shapes probably made by spraying chewed-up tint from the artist's mouth.  Several surfaces show handprints clustered among spots made this way, and one carries the effect to an extreme:

Chauvet Cave Handprints
Chauvet Cave, Handprints, ca. 30000 BC

This display of splatters and hands raises any number of questions.  Among these, perhaps the most notable is the one that Linda Nochlin asked in 1971: "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?"

We humans as a species are sexually dimorphic, which means that as a statistical matter, we come in two familiar shapes, male and female, with many overlapping characteristics and some distinctive ones.  The female pelvis is generally suited to childbirth in ways the male pelvis is not.  The male skull is, generally speaking, less rounded and somewhat lumpier.  And so forth.  Another such tendency appears in human hands– not always, but as a statistical tendency: the male hand typically has a ring finger somewhat longer than the index finger, while these are usually close to the same length in the female.

Look again at the photograph, and you'll soon recognize why students of prehistoric art now suspect that the first great women artists might well have been those who participated in painting the Chauvet complex!  (Children were involved, too, as their undisturbed footprints demonstrate.)

Handprints are indexical, caused by the very thing they resemble.  But the human form also appears more creatively and abstractly in what is perhaps the earliest tale of a superhero: Bird-Man.

Lascaux Cave, Birdman and Bison
Lascaux Cave, Bird-Man and Bison, ca. 15000 BC

Maybe he was a member or leader of the tribe.  Maybe he was an imaginary figure– even a legendary one.  Perhaps he was a man wearing a bird-like mask that matched the avian avatar atop his shamanesque staff.  Or perhaps the artist envisioned him as a hybrid being, like the Lion-Human from the Stadel Cave.

Whatever the case, Bird-Man was clearly quite a mighty hero as he singlehandedly took on his fearsome competitor, the formidable bison.  The lack of a background or groundline makes the scene spatially ambiguous, but this much is clear: Bird-Man and the bison have gone head to head and the former's toppling form suggests that we're witnessing in this scene the climactic moment of their encounter.

Bird-Man seems to throw back his head and release his staff and perhaps even to relinquish what appears to be a spear thrower.  The menacing horns of the bison accuse the negative space surrounding Bird-Man's outstretched left arm, which suggests that his defense against their penetration has proven inadequate.  Perhaps fatally gored, the valiant Bird-Man declines.  He falters, but he has not failed, for the bison turns its head away to survey injuries of its own.  One spear appears to pierce its belly, and another its flank.  Loops of intestine seem to spill forth, to the bemusement of the wounded creature.  Perhaps it, too, is fading, slain by the hand of Bird-Man in his last heroic act.

Drama.  Conflict.  Action.  Pathos.  Theme.  The struggle of humankind to come to grips with the material circumstances that make a great horned beast seem at once intimidating and appetizing.  A dose of magic or mythology and a dash of derring-do.  Here, in a Paleolithic painting made well after the Chauvet Cave's reverent arrays but well before wedges in wet clay first make writing, humankind takes a stand.

Looking back into the mystery beyond history, there's so little we can tell.  It's fundamentally paradoxical to be a historian of prehistoric art.  But the more we look and the more carefully we think, the more this much becomes clear: whoever those people were, they're cousins not so distant, not so different.  In fundamental ways, we are them and they are us.  But the great gulf of ignorance that separates now from then defies navigation.  Dimly we hear the music of their voice.  But we can't make out the words.

One thought on “Prehistoric painting”

  1. See my book Mindprint at

    The Chauvet cave lioness pursuit panel is in the book, demonstrated to contain a double mindprint, geared to one another.

    See also my comment on the first recorded use of the term mindprint by another author, who did not develop it further.

    See also an article about the subconsious expression of archetypal structure at Gobekli Tepe and in cklassical and modern art, in the book, and on under Author of the Month for September 2015.

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