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December 18, 2003

Darn good Upper Paleolithic art found
Posted by Teresa at 01:09 PM *

As reported in Nature magazine (though you can also read about it in the NYTimes),

A set of ivory figurines found in southwestern Germany add to a growing cache of the oldest art known.

The 30,000-year-old carvings underline the remarkable creativity of our earliest European ancestors. Nicholas Conard of the University of Tfcbingen, Germany, discovered the 2-centimetre-high figures in the Hohle Fels Cave in the country’s Swabia region.

The figurines, and similar relics previously unearthed in Swabia, are the earliest known representations of living forms. “Without question, they are the oldest corpus of figurative art in the world,” says archaeologist Anthony Sinclair of the University of Liverpool, UK.

The carvings were almost certainly made by Europe’s earliest modern settlers. Their location supports the idea that modern humans migrated into Europe along the River Danube more than 30,000 years ago.

But the complexity of the findings undermines the traditional view that art began crudely and gradually acquired sophistication. “The new evidence refuses to fit,” says Sinclair. “It seems that the first modern humans in Europe were astonishingly precocious in their skills.”
As Dr. Conard described it,
The finds include the oldest known representation of a bird, a therianthropic sculpture and an animal that most closely resembles a horse.
Or, as the NYTimes more informally put it:
One of the pieces is the oldest known representation of a bird, which resembles a cormorant or a duck. The others appear to be the head of a horse and a figure half-man, half-animal.
Now, this is very interesting. What it suggests to me is that art began as a way of seeing, and of representing what you see, rather than something laboriously and rather drearily built up out of the earlier invention of circles, lines, dots, squiggles, and zipatone.

It’s possible that I think this because I’ve always been mildly irritated by the kind of deliberate primitivism in art that’s hard to distinguish from never having learned to draw. Trouble is, if I say that, I’ll get approving comments from person-or-persons who think I mean Klee or Kandinsky, whose work I do like, rather than de Kooning, whose work I don’t. So please don’t think that.

But never mind all that. Representational art from the Upper Paleolithic is just inherently cool, no matter what else is going on.

Comments on Darn good Upper Paleolithic art found:
#1 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 04:25 PM:

I remember the first time I was shown the Venus of Willendorf, and I couldn't understand the excitement that this little statue gave people. But put into context of how early art evolved, she became much more interesting.

I had this little issue as a small child, where I felt that I could do so much better than any of the earlier artists. Youthful arrogance, I guess. I'd look at the old Catholic iconography or the paintings of Giotto and I'd lament the lack of perspective. Now I wonder how my art would have progressed if I hadn't grown up seeing how other people represented the things they saw. The early iconography only seemed primitive in comparison to all the history that followed.

What irritates you so much about the deliberate primitivism? I'm curious, because I think you can integrate that primitive quality into a piece just to get a particular feel. Do you differentiate it as a stylistic choice?

#2 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 04:31 PM:

" . . .and a creature than is seemingly half-man, half-cat."

Damn furries...

#3 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 05:54 PM:

I have to admit, I never really "got" the Venus of Willendorf either, until I went to the member's preview of the new Hall of Human Evolution at the Museum of Natural History when I was extremely pregnant.

All of a sudden, I knew exactly what they were getting at. It was like looking in an (ancient) mirror.

They also have a small stone face of a woman with a facial deformity (possibly the results of a stroke) which was found in the grave of a woman with signs of nerve damage in the same place, and which they believe is the earliest known representation of a "known" person.

They don't seem to have it on their site, dammit.

#4 ::: Darkhawk ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 06:09 PM:

This article got posted to a pagan discussion forum I read, and promptly got terribly whimsical, with various posters trying to out-conspiracy-theorise each other about why there wasn't a 'Great Goddess' figure in the findings.

I believe they got as far as Bill Gates being responsible for the black helicopters before it all broke down.

#5 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 06:28 PM:

Anyone remember the old National Lampoon / Shary Flenniken comic that suggested an alternate explanation for the Great Goddess figurines?

#6 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 06:35 PM:

Elizabeth: I am going to get into so much trouble with this ...

Why does it irritate me? I don't know. Start by saying it doesn't so much irritate me as make me uneasy.

It puts me in mind of that thing where white boys dress up and pretend that they're members of some oppressed group, and subsequently profess to believe that this means they're somehow in touch with the soul of that people, and understand what it is to be them.

(I've seen innumerable photos of Navajos, some of them taken by very fine photographers. But I once saw a collection of photographs taken by a bunch of Navajo children who'd been given cameras and film as an art project, and the difference was startling. The professional photographers had been photographing Navajos. The kids were taking pictures of their friends.)

It makes me uneasy because there's a difference between being an artist who can buy top-quality art supplies, and has had access to the art and history of thousands of years of world culture, and being someone who's only ever seen a little art, and has to dig and gather and grind their own pigments, prepare their own paints, and apply them to cave walls by torchlight.

(I forget who it was that said there's a world of difference between running away to join the circus because it's the freest and most marvellous thing you've ever seen, and doing it because you've read a book about somebody who ran away from home to join the circus.)

I'm emphatically not saying that First World artists shouldn't use elements of primitive or Third World art. I'm saying that when they do it, it's different. And when I say that some instances of that use makes me uneasy, I'm not sitting in judgement. I'm saying that that's the reaction I have.

#7 ::: David Sucher ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 06:51 PM:

" began as a way of seeing, and of representing what you see, rather than something laboriously and rather drearily built up out of the earlier invention of circles, lines, dots, squiggles, and zipatone."

That sounds interesting though I have no idea what it means. Could you possibly elaborate? How could there be anything else except art beginning "as a way of seeing" or an expression of what one sees?


#8 ::: arthur ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 07:18 PM:

These particular pieces of art are early only relative to all other known surviving artwork. It's quite plausible that humans were producing art for 10,000 years before these were made, so they aren't meaningfully closer to where "art began" than Raphael or de Kooning.

#9 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 07:45 PM:

Yes, and its also entirely possible that humans were producing art 20,000 years before that. But barring evidence of such, this is the earliest known art, and therefore a good place to put the "circa" marker for "Representational carvigs in Europe".
Paleoanthropology is a science like any other, constructing theories based on evidence, and if new evidence is found, changing the theory.
More interesting to me is the representational art representing something that did not actually exist.

#10 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 08:51 PM:

Teresa, maybe you92re thinking of the difference between imitating the primitive artists, and synthesizing a new art (as Picasso and Braque did) out of primitive and modern sensibilities.

Or maybe the difference is craft. Picasso and Braque both brought considerable skill to their work. De Kooning92s work doesn92t strike me as skillful.

#11 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 09:08 PM:

Avram: I think you've probably hit the nail on the head. (Or at least one related nail. :)

Imitation versus homage.

I admit I like throwing out little visual bones in some of my more illustrative pieces, similar to the way a writer plants allusions to earlier body of a literature. But I see it more as building on the original work than trying to gank the whole soul of it.

Teresa: The white boys trying to dress up like they are part of some underprivileged group--I guess it depends on motive. If they are trying to pretend that they came from some impoverished life style, it puts me vaguely in mind of that story of Marie Antoinette putting on a shepherdess frock and pretending to be a milk maid or imitate the pastoral lifestyle. Trying to either pretend that you too were somehow oppressed or assigning idealised virtues to an oppressed life seem like romantic naivete, and occasionally quite disrespectful of real adversity.

#12 ::: Mary Kay ::: (view all by) ::: December 18, 2003, 11:36 PM:

Hey! You can't blog this. I was going to blog this.

As far as the faux primitivism goes here's what I think. There's a very fine line between experimenting with different approaches and rejecting what you are (educated, sophisticated, etc.) for what you are not (in this case naive, unschooled, etc.). Too many artists cross it. I would never go so far as to say this sort of experimentation is a bad thing, but I think it's not too good to pretend to be something /someone you aren't. Certainly I'd never say they couldn't, but they can't say I have to buy/support/admire their stuff if I don't like it either.


#13 ::: Andy Perrin ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2003, 12:52 AM:

My favorite has always been the Lady of Brassempouy. There's a good picture of her here:

The site above says she is 30000 years old like the Nature finds.

#14 ::: Mr Spectator ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2003, 03:03 AM:

Question to ponder then: If the first people to make recognisable art made representational art, what impulse moved their descendents to stop doing that and make "primitive" art instead?

#15 ::: Graydon ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2003, 08:45 AM:

That's not a particularly well-formed question; you could as easily ask why the last couple-three centuries have seen a departure from symbolic art to representational art, and what terrible lack of common symbology is involved in the cultures which have undertaken this change?

"Art" is too big a tent to have a consistent purpose.

#16 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2003, 10:03 AM:

"Representational art from the Upper Paleolithic is just inherently cool"

It is... I can't exactly put my finger on why, but it is. Something about pushing back the timeline of human ingenuity, maybe? I don't know.

For some reason I thought of the Uffington horse (which can be found at, along with other chalk horses that I'd never heard of), which I would imagine most of you have heard of or seen. (I first encountered it on the cover of XTC's 'English Settlement' album.) The Uffington horse isn't that old, if you can call 3000 years 'not that old,' but still, something similar to the German artworks, if only mentally/conceptually. Inherently cool, and oddly fascinating.

#17 ::: Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2003, 12:24 PM:

I've been thinking about what T said about modern artists incorporating primitive styles in their work, and the white suburban kids mimicking the styles of poor black kids. It also makes me uncomfortable, and I think it is because it often smacks of making fun of a handicap. In the case of artists, T wrote about the difficulty of acquiring the tools and supplies. Those difficulties are integral to the results. Modern artists working without those limitations do not always seem to appreciate the achievements of the artists they imitate. They seem to be pulling the primitive artwork out of its context, and I think this can make primitive artists look less skillful than they were.

Ghetto clothing developes in response to social pressures that suburban kids don't face. Rich kids wearing poor kids' clothing seems to me to have have an inherent contempt for the people being imitated. Hardship and violence becoming a fashion statement.

There's been a fair amount of discussion of this sort of thing in the music industry, too. Paul Simon was accused of exploiting Ladysmith Blackmambazo when recording "Graceland." I think it was Dead Can Dance that took a recording of traditional tribal music and used it at the beginning of one of their songs, without crediting, acknowledging, or paying the performers. Now that seems wrong, to me. However, would it have been long if they'd used the recording as a model to sign the chant themselves? It would, I think, have that same effect of tearing something out of context, shearing away its inherent limitations and strengths, and place it in an environment where all its connections are wrong. On the other hand, Simon and the South African musicians jammed together and appeared to have a vibrant exchange of ideas. I think the people who accuse Simon of having been exploiting the musicians just because he was incorporating African music into his own work are wrong.

Hmm. Does this leave me anywhere? I don't think that what bothers me is mediated either by intent. I think that some cases are clearer than others. I think that homage vs. plagarism, or imitation vs. synthesis aren't quite what I'm looking for to describe my reactions. Much of it is clearly my own perceptions.

I didn't used to believe this, but I've come to believe that art is a conversation. In order to understand it, you have to speak the language and have an understanding of what's being discussed. Simply dumping things out of context into the discussion is like throwing non-sequiturs into a serious discussion. It may lighten things up, briefly, but it doesn't advance the conversation any. It can also be extremely annoying.

#18 ::: Josh ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2003, 01:53 PM:

It puts me in mind of that thing where white boys dress up and pretend that they're members of some oppressed group, and subsequently profess to believe that this means they're somehow in touch with the soul of that people, and understand what it is to be them.

The thing it reminds me of is Restoration Hardware. They've got some great stuff there, but then you'll find things like a hand-cranked mixer with a little paean to what wonderful cakes the writer's grandmother used to make with a hand mixer just like it. Except that no one who has the choice uses a hand mixer when a Mixmaster or an electric mixer is available.

#19 ::: Dave Kuzminski ::: (view all by) ::: December 19, 2003, 04:00 PM:

I think people tend to forget or ignore the fact that our predecessors had to be smarter than most people gave them credit for. After all, if they weren't smart enough, I don't think we'd be here.

As to the representational art of something that didn't exist, uh, who says it didn't exist? All we can truly state regarding such work is that it showed a certain amount of skill in depicting something. All we can express is healthy skepticism concerning it. We cannot, however, determine without any doubt that the creature it depicted didn't exist.

#20 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2003, 01:23 AM:

Yes. Yes we can. I can absolutely state that nowhere in earth's history did there exist half-man, half-animal beings, excepting the trivial hominid examples.

#21 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2003, 03:02 AM:

Yes, BSD, but in a 2cm representation, it's quite possible to have elements of human and animal represented in the same figure and have it be as accurate a representation as that culture would allow, or could accurately carve.

Hey gang -- these things are _small_. Reading lots of detail into them is not necessarily a good idea.

#22 ::: Leslie ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2003, 11:39 AM:

I've been lurking for a long time but this conversation impelled me to delurk. I'm an artist so it's of considerable interest.

Lydia is exactly right in saying "I didn't used to believe this, but I've come to believe that art is a conversation. In order to understand it, you have to speak the language and have an understanding of what's being discussed."

When artists use primitivistic elements today it's a vocabulary that references and builds upon the original work. For me, Kle9e and Kandinsky's work is a terribly sophisticated, witty commentary on what's primitive in all of us - and what isn't. Kle9e in particular uses primitivism as a delightful way to comment on the present. One of my favorites is his painting "The Twittering Machine"- he comments on modern society and technology very succinctly here.

DeKooning is savage - his use of primitive technique has, to my mind, a profoundly negative view of humanity. (I'll get in trouble for this with some too!) He used raw technique deliberately to express a dark attitude about humanity but the intent behind the choices about painting technique is not at all simple.

I think we can't assume that the very early figurative pieces had any intent of commenting about art making in them - they were about depicting what they saw and what they believed in a religious or spiritual way. People didn't start using art as a conversation about prior art until very recently in human history.

#23 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2003, 12:27 PM:

Good on you for delurking, Leslie! I personally hope to see more of your comments.

Are you sidling around the idea of intentionality in your comment? Klee likes to (IMO) refer to older forms: de Koonig seems to attack them, attempting to use their basis to point out their weaknesses. Is the issue here respect?

Tom W.

#24 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2003, 07:35 PM:

Reminded I am of Benchley, and who isn't?

This, from "Isn't It Remarkable?", found in The Benchley Roundup: "...there appears a picture of a goose with the following rather condescending caption:

"Remarkably Accurate and Artistic Painting of a Goose from Pharaoh Akhenaten's Palace, Drawn 3300 Years Ago.

"What I want to know is -- why the 'remarkable'? Why is it any more remarkable that someone drew a goose accurately 3300 years ago than that someone should do it today? Why should we be surprised that the people who built the Pyramids could also draw a goose so that it looked like a goose?"

He goes on a bit, with less incidental humor than usual, concluding:

"If we took it for granted that the ancient Egyptians could draw a goose accurately, or that Eskimos could sing bass, or that Grandpa should be interested in everything at eighty-two, there wouldn't be anything for us to hang our own superiority on.

"And if we couldn't find anything to hang our own superiority on we should be sunk. We should be just like the ancient Egyptians, or the Eskimos, or Grandpa."

#25 ::: Leslie ::: (view all by) ::: December 20, 2003, 08:57 PM:

Tom asks about intentionality. I think there are two issues - how successful the artist at conveying their intention is as crucial as the actual intent. Lots of people have great and ambitious intentions for their work - whether it lives up to those intentions or not is another question.

In De Kooning's case he was certainly referencing many early portrayals of women/goddesses - to my mind with rage and hatred and disturbed sexuality but many art historians who like his work would differ with me about his intent. So yes - it is about respect --for his subject (or the lack thereof). I think he uses primitive forms as vocabulary so the lack of respect has more to do with his subject than the references he uses to express it. Hope that's coherent!

#26 ::: Virge ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2003, 09:56 PM:

Does early intentional art
upset all your history of "smart"?
Such representation
needs imagination,
not Plato nor Kant nor Descartes.

#27 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 04:51 AM:

It strikes me as being something like japanese teenagers wearing tshirts with nonsense slogans in "english" - I think the people who crafted the "primitive" art were saying something about the animals and people they represented, possibly something religious, but something at any rate that would tell us what they thought about the animals and the people if we understood how to read it.

It's a little disconcerting to see that used as a graphic shorthand for cthonic forces emanated from beneath the intellect and channeled by the artist out of his/her inner depths. Those people survived in very hard times indeed. I'm sure their response to it had a great deal of very serious thought in it.

The Benchley quote about calling your grandfather a fool - what he said.

#28 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: December 22, 2003, 04:53 AM:

make that response to that.

sorry, it's early yet.

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