Earliest Works of Art

ice_age_study_304x176Ice Age Art [at the British Museum, February 7 – may 26, 2013] is less an archaeological exhibition than an exploration of the human search for and expression of meaning. For example, many of the human figures on show are female—nudes made thousands of centuries before the Greeks, who are often credited for being the first artists. Some are nubile, others more voluptuous and visibly fecund. Interpretations abound for why they exist, whether as sexual fetish symbols or matriarchal avatars. But their significance is that they exist at all, as labour-intensive embodiments of desire. Inspired by such works, Georges Bataille, an influential French literary figure, wrote in 1955 that if Greece represented the first day in art, then these carved tusks and sculpted stones mark the dazzling light of its ‘early morning’”–The Economist

“Like the Hubble telescope that so extended the range of our vision in space, the cave of Chauvet has enabled us to look into an unexpectedly distant past of human art—though by no means as far as the first traces of Homo sapiens, let alone of Homo erectus. Thus we may be compelled to revise current constructs of stylistic developments in the Paleolithic Age. We now know that more than 30,000 years ago ice age artists had acquired a complete mastery of their technical means, presumably based on a tradition extending much further into the past. This tradition had equipped them with serviceable conventions in the rendering of various species, but it had not prevented them from branching out on their own—witness the unique portrayal of an owl (or of auks at Cosquer), not to mention various fantastic creatures, one of which looks like a minotaur—a bull with two human legs—possibly representing a masked shaman. In any case, these early hunters must have felt free to experiment with frontal views, rudimentary foreshortening, and the device of shading to enhance the impression of rounding forms, if not, perhaps, of the fall of light. The vocabulary they handled with such supreme artistry can now be seen to have lived on in the formulas, not to say stereotypes, painted or scratched on the walls of such caves millennium after millennium.

The fact that the naturalism of this art remained selective is perhaps less surprising than it appears at first sight. The side view of most quadrupeds is comparatively easily memorized, while we bipeds present a different aspect when standing, sitting, kneeling, or reclining, thanks to our ability to turn and twist in almost any direction. Small wonder, then, that artists since the Renaissance have had to submit to the discipline of the life class in order to master the human figure. Even the styles of the ancient Orient tended to restrict its rendering to a few rigid schemata, in contrast to their rich representations of animals in motion.

For all we know, the stick figures used by early man to represent humans could serve their purposes no less well than could the magnificent evocations of animals, or, for that matter, the female figurines found on other sites. Will we ever be able to tell what these purposes were?”–Ernst Gombrich

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