The Birth of Art

Horses and Rhinoceros- Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave circa 30,000-32,000BP
Horses and Rhinoceros- Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave circa 30,000-32,000BP

We do not know exactly when the first work of art was created by human hands and we will probably never for certain, as the very question is vexatiously hedged with other questions (such as, what constitutes art?), and that is before we factor in our uncertain knowledge of unconscionably remote periods, new discoveries that shatter accepted wisdom and most pertinently, all that will remain undiscovered as it has vanished from the face of the earth forever.

Georges Bataille who wrote extensively on the subject of prehistoric art for over three decades published  Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art in 1955, a monograph on the famous Lascaux Caves, known as the Sistine Chapel of Prehistoric Art, with paintings dating from around 17,000 BP.  Bataille’s theory that Lascaux represented the birth of art  would have been uncontroversial at the time, but new paintings have since come to light in Indonesia and France, especially the magnificent Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave that pushes back the birth of figurative art another 15,000 years.

One of the most remarkable features of prehistoric art (and there are many) is that it upends our idea of the constant evolutionary progress of humanity. Automatically we think that art created by sophisticated civilisations is going to be superior to art from pre-literate cultures and the further back you go the cruder the paintings. We presume that the art in Chauvet would only hint at the glories of Lascaux and Altamira, bearing the same relation to a child’s daubs to Leonardo Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet the excellence of composition and technical expertise, which includes prior etchings of the stone that is then painting over shows that these were artists were no mere initiators, they already possessed a full command of the medium.

There are many more mysteries surrounding cave art. Why were they painted in the recesses of the caves which would have created many difficulties in execution and viewing? Some of the paintings in Lascaux would by necessity have involved the construction of scaffolding. Why is the human figure so rarely represented and in such a crude and always masked fashion in comparison to the numerous and lovingly rendered animal figures? And most pointedly, why did our ancestors feel compelled to create images in the first place and did this compulsion somehow change our relationship to nature?

Below are images from Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira and others caves from the Franco-Cantabrian region. Obviously a two-dimensional image can never do justice to art which was meant to been seen in situ, but as a majority of caves are either closed or severely restrict access for imperative preservation reasons this is simply not feasible. But even from a cursory glance we can see why Picasso exclaimed to his fellow modern artists, ‘We’ve invented nothing’ after a trip to Lascaux.

Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave circa 30,000 to 32,000BP
Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave circa 30,000 to 32,000BP
Rhinoceros & Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave 30,000BP to 32,000BP
Rhinoceros & Lions-Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave 30,000BP to 32,000BP
Venus and the sorcerer-Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave 30,000 to 32,000BP
Venus and the sorcerer-Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave 30,000 to 32,000BP
Dun Horse-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Dun Horse-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Horses, Bison and Reindeer-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Horses, Auroch and Reindeer-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Bison-Horses-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Auroch-Horses-Lascaux circa 17,000BP
Wounded Bison-Bird Headed Man-Lascaux Shaft-circa 17,000BP
Wounded Bison-Bird Headed Man-Lascaux Shaft-circa 17,000BP
Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP ?
Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP ?
Hall of Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP?
Hall of Bison-Altamira circa 22,000BP?
Dappled Horse-Pech Merle  circa 25,000BP
Dappled Horse-Pech Merle circa 25,000BP

 

 

39 thoughts on “The Birth of Art

  1. Just an amazing essay on one of the most intriguing mysteries of human kind. Art is as old as language and should truly be considered as such, that’s only my opinion though. Very lovely, thank you, Cake!

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    1. Thank you Sue…it is a true mystery. We can recognize our kinship with these people from very far in the past by there creation of these images. Truly staggering really. Art is what makes us human for good and ill. Bataille says that animals relationship with nature is ‘like water in water’ whereas these artists realized the separation and it was a cause of sadness and anxiety, this being outside. Hence the veneration of the animal and the self effacement, masking of the human.

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      1. Amazing point of view, both sad and enchanting at the same time. As most things really have a myriad of feelings attached to them. The rather thrilling think with the caves would be that every living being who was evolved in creating the drawings is long gone and so is the knowledge about their actual purpose and meaning to them, leaving space for a wide range of speculations, in search of our own porpose and history. Thought inducing post, indeed. Have a nice night.

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      2. Well nobody can ever really know the purpose of the cave paintings so it ripe for imaginations to run wild. To put it in perspective recorded history is 5,200 years old and over twenty five thousands year separate them and the beginning of history. Beautiful comments Sue thank you.

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  2. A wonderful text and beautiful art Mr. Cake. I have to imagine that cave artists were not just drawing for leisure but perhaps were engaged in a process of communication, a communal effort that assisted in their ability to convey their thoughts symbolically. It’s something to ponder. Again, this is beautiful, thank you.

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    1. It was definitely a communal effort Miss Heart. In such a short post which dealt with the figurative I didn’t mention a recurring feature of cave art worldwide which is the handprints, both negative and positive left by men, women and children. I like to imagine that these were like signing a visitors book, people saying that they had visited these sacred places. Also in the case of Altamira a space of around twenty thousand years separate some of the paintings.

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  3. Perhaps drawing is pervasive in our species for 300000 years, sticks scraped in sand, charcoal on wood. The dawn you describe was not of representational art but of durable media which survived to us only in the deepest caves.

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    1. Agreed Kestrel so much has been lost or awaits to be rediscovered. One interesting points about the caves is the prevalence of older bear claw scratch marks on the walls, then the handprints (in some cases) then the figurative. The time spans make the head reel. Thanks for the comment Kestrel.

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      1. That’s interesting and perhaps confounds my comment. That suggests a cognitive development over time not a change in media.
        Odd the bears didn’t develop art over the same time though. Not a facetious point entirely. Cognitive development or not, we had to have cognition to develop.
        Oh for a time machine.

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      2. One of the most hotly contested points is whether art making is confined to Homo Sapiens or whether Neanderthals also did. Hence the question what constitutes art. Only figurative art produced by Homo Sapiens has survived to my (admittedly limited) knowledge. A time machine would be gas and a real eye opener.

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      3. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-02357-8
        This link takes us in turn to other discussions. It’s contentious. Critical issues may be that despite having similar brain sizes to sapiens, Neanderthals might have used more brain to power vision and their more robust bodies. Crucially, their populations were sparse and spread out across Europe, arguably making development of culture harder as well as leaving them more vulnerable to extinction and assimilation by sapiens. Clearly though they were close enough genetically and behaviourally for sapiens and Neanderthals to breed successfully. I remember but cannot locate some fascinating work on human behavioural and sexual physiology which, crudely, might allow sapiens to build large cooperative groups not just of females but of males. In other species, male sexual aggression and competition limits this. Some of this has to do with smell. It’s that social and behavioural adaptation coupled to intelligence which might underpin the development of art.

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      4. This is fascinating thank you Kestrel. The evidence of assimilation between Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens is confusing to say the least. Very interesting theory regarding the dispersal and the ability to co-exist in large groups. After all humans are one of the three species that live in colonies of over a million.

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  4. To depict so much power and movement these animals must have been – verinnerlicht – internalised. In other words the spirit of the animal must have entered the artist – to touch us in such depth.
    So inspiring, thanks for the images. I recently re-watched Wim Wender’s doc. about the Chauvet Caves.
    Re our era of film, I’m thinking how deeply moving images can emotionally involve us.

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    1. The shaman theory comes in and out of vogue regarding the cave paintings but it must play a part. Obviously the animals aren’t copied from life they are copied from memory and the identification is strong. The strategic placing of bear skulls in a lot of these caves in Franco-Cantabrian speaks volume about a magical-religious purpose. The flickering lights playing against the dark cave walls and the fact that the animals are in motion suggest an early cinema. Thank you for the comment!

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  5. These are exquisite. And you raise so many good questions, especially the rendering of human images vs animal. And to sequester them in caves – could they have realized they would be preserved, I wonder. Prehistory does not equate with crude and rudimentary! Fascinating. And an excellent summation.

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    1. Thank you I fear I was a bit too brief as it is a big subject and intersects with some many other disciplines. I agree that they are exquisite which raises yet more questions. Thanks for the lovely comment.

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  6. Mr Cake you always hit the right note, leading the reader to think about the subject that you are writing about. Of course humans have always had a need to express themselves however primitive they might appear to us the viewer, they of course were not thinking about the future only their immediate need to express themselves at that very particular moment in time, the hear and now. A question Mr Cake who was the very first person to draw on cave walls? Would it be male/female? Leave that thought with you. Well done Mr Cake as always you delight.

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    1. That is a very good question regarding the gender of the creators of these images. Handprints both positive and negative (positive is a simple pressing of a hand dripped in paint, negative is when paint is sprayed around a hand pressed against the wall) on pretty much all caves containing more figurative paintings. The hand prints are made by men, women and children. Not that this solves the issue of who painted the marvellous bison, horses, rhinos etc, but it does show that the cave were communal. Thank you for your kind comments.

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  7. A great article with pictures, and I enjoyed the discussion above about whether the Neanderthals were also capable of producing art (the book by Lewis-Williams that I recently read says they did not have that capability because their body art does not constitute “art” and they did not have the “conceptual powers” in their brains to produce it and imitate Homo Sapiens). I do not know what to make of this argument. I agree with you on your point about the “evolutionary” nature of art, too – masterfully-executed art can spring from unlikely sources and many questions still remain.

    I am far from being an expert about the questions you pose – “Why were they painted in the recesses of the caves which would have created many difficulties in execution and viewing?” and “Why is the human figure so rarely represented and in such a crude and always masked fashion in comparison to the numerous and lovingly rendered animal figures?” – but I believe that, in my personal opinion, early human being may have been making art in inaccessible places because these places are sacred somehow – hidden places mean that their art will not be tarnished and remain – perhaps they wanted it to last as long as possible for some spiritual purposes. That is just my, maybe very obvious, guess. As to the second question about why they painted predominantly animals – perhaps, that was their main concern – they wanted these animals to remain and never to disappear – animals symbolised to them everything, I imagine a – source of food and warmth (animal skin) – painting them on the walls may somehow send the message to higher spiritual entities, etc. that they important to them or something. That is also my uninformed guess.

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    1. Thank you Diana, I am glad I provided food for thought. It appears that Art has been produced a lot longer ago than previously thought. The caves were definitely sacred to the early artists, which would explain (at least partly) the reason why these magnificent paintings were created in such inaccessible locations. As for the prevalence of painstakingly rended animals as opposed to the crude masked humans, Georges Bataille thought long and hard on the subject and suggests it is because early humanity was aware of a recently opened gulf between animal kind and humankind and it is a yearning for an innocence lost, the moment when we are becoming and not just pure being. Thanks again for reading and commenting at such length.😊

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      1. I wrote a whole series of posts on his magazine Documents…of course I can send them to you if you so desire…his most famous book is The Story of the Eye, a incredibly strange and grim surrealist pornographic novel. His book on Cave Art is excellent as well as The Accursed Share which is his completely left field book on economic theory. He certainly wasn’t confined to one genre anyway!

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