Art Before History

October 5, 2013 at 7:30 pm (Art History)

Art of the Stone Age can be divided into two distinct eras, Paleolithic and Neolithic, with a transitional period known as the Mesolithic Age.  Both the styles and iconography of these ages evolve as the lifestyles and emphases of the people change.

Art of the Paleolithic Age (ca. 30,000-9000 BCE) typically depicted animals drawn, sculpted or carved in complete profile, as this was the most descriptive view.  Features, which would not be visible in strict profile, were manipulated into “twisted perspective” or “composite view” to maintain the “pictorial definition” of the subject (Kleiner 2).  The Hall of the Bulls, a cave in Lascaux, France contains many fine examples of this technique.  These paintings, where the horns of the bulls and other animals are pictured frontally, are believed to originate from 15,000 to 13,000 BCE.  This example is typical of Paleolithic cave paintings found in Western Europe.  The animals are often painted larger than life and there is no sense of “ground line or indication of setting (5).”

Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux

Hall of the Bulls, Lascaux

The Chauvet Cave in Vallon-Pont d’Arc, France has created some controversy because it deviates from these typical elements and there is some debate about the authenticity of the original carbon dating.  If the cave paintings originate from 30,000-28,000 BCE, as originally believed, the established theories must be called into question; however if they are from 15,000-13,000 BCE, as newer data indicates, it may merely constitute a transitional stage before the Neolithic era (8).

Chauvet Cave

Chauvet Cave

There are several theories regarding the illustration of animals by Paleolithic peoples.  Simple decoration seems unlikely due to the “narrow range of subjects or the inaccessibility of many of the representations,” but many scholars believe the images had magical purposes, involving successful hunting or protection of the species (7).  Another practical theory indicates the images were instructive devices for hunters or young people.  The true meaning is still unknown.

Humans were rarely represented in Paleolithic art and most examples of human iconography involved female forms with an overemphasis of the childbearing/childrearing attributes and very little detail given to other features.  A classic example of this style is the Venus of Willendorf (ca. 28,000-25,000 BCE), a small, rounded statuette exhibiting large breasts and belly with a well-defined pubic area, undersized arms and a face without features.  It is commonly believed that these incarnations serve as fertility symbols, homage to the female ability to create life, but again this is only speculation.

Venus of Willendorf

Venus of Willendorf

One divergence from the typical animal or female subjects is another painting from the Lascaux cave, portraying a man with a “prominent penis (9).”  This illustration is also atypical because there seems to be some interaction between the man and a disemboweled bison, thus creating a possible narrative.

Lascaux

Lascaux

Life for the Paleolithic peoples would have focused on hunting, gathering and general survival.  As the Ice Age ended, Neolithic peoples developed an aptitude for both farming and tending livestock.  With their newfound access to plentiful food, societies became more complex and there seemed to be a shift in emphasis toward the importance of man’s role in life and art, beginning with the ancient Near East.  Societies like those in Jericho and Ain Ghazal saw the first forms of monumental architecture and sculpture.  The complex community of Çatal Höyük in Turkey not only demonstrated the first example of a landscape, but contained wall paintings involving groups of humans involved in a narrative, such as the Deer Hunt painting found on Level III (ca. 5750 BCE).  The human figures were depicted in composite view with profile heads and limbs, but frontal torsos.  This design would become the norm for many subsequent eras.

Deer Hunt, Çatal Höyük

Deer Hunt, Çatal Höyük

In Western Europe, megalithic architecture was created.  The art form, which involved carving and manipulation of large rocks, was an unbelievable achievement for the time.  Two particularly notable techniques arose.  The corbeled vault system, seen at Newgrange in Ireland, involved piling megaliths in staggered courses until the two sides met in a domed ceiling, the weight of each side counter-balanced by the other.  The post and lintel system, most famously demonstrated at Stonehenge in England, entailed placing a horizontal, notched lintel upon two vertical posts with corresponding protrusions (14).  Both of these monuments have an emphasis on revering or communing with the dead and although we do not know the true purpose of many aspects of Neolithic art, these complex evolutions in artistic development reflect humankind’s societal and technological advancements and perhaps their budding awareness of man’s significance.

Corbeled Vault, Newgrange

Corbeled Vault, Newgrange

Source:

Kleiner, Fred S.  Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.  Boston: Wadsworth, 2010.  Print.

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