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On the Paleolithic



We commence with a few relevant quotes:


The human hand fashions works from lifeless matter according to the same formal principles as nature does. All human art production is therefore at heart nothing other than a contest with nature. The sense of delight with which a work of art fills us is commensurate with its human maker's capacity to bring to clear and convincing expression the respective formal laws of natural creation. In other words, it is the recognition of the work of art's correspondence to the work of nature to which it refers that the source of all purely aesthetic pleasure lies. The history of art is the history of the creative human being's victories as he competes with nature. – Alois Riegl (1)


...This is an art

Which does mend nature, — change it rather: but 

The art itself is nature. – William Shakespeare, (2)


Images were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent. Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented; it then showed how something or somebody had once looked — and thus by implication how the subject had once been seen[...]Later still the specific vision of the image-maker was also recognized as part of the record.  An image became a record of how X had seen Y. – John Berger (3)


Emanuel Kant, the great German idealist, introduced the notion of meaningfulness without any specific meaning to be grasped with anything like certainty...and Kant's point is an essential gist for comprehending the purpose, motives, and meaning of Paleolithic images and objects...that is to say, we have no way, no access to the specifics of motive or purpose...but very fertile grounds for speculating...for articulating hypotheses...for generating theoretical contexts with respect to eliding image and intention.


I will hazard several discontinuous points of reference.


1. Art comprehended as epistemology, as a way of knowing the world: While determining the distinction between art and artifact. And the role of consensus in determining the difference.  All of the proceeding remarks serve as a circumambient surround for appreciating the 35 to 50,000-year span of the Magdelanian, the Paleolithic and the pre-historic passage of human (Cro-Magnon, Homo Sapien) existence. Consider the following scenario: a group, perhaps 12 to 15 individuals, very probably all of them male, enters a relatively small and confining opening to an intricate and elaborate cave complex. Each is equipped with elemental gear: a capella, the concave knee cap bone of a deer or bison or cow or some such, which is brimming with animal fat or rancid oils each of which is alight with the illuminating power of your typical candle...they also carry with them chunks of charcoal, pigments consisting of fat, clay & blood, daubing tufts of hair, shaved bone for incising, and the hollow stems of various feathers...And they crawl for, at minimum, a quarter of a mile until they arrive at a yawning cavern of inexplicable dimension. Then, in the dim and flickering light, they set to work...proceeding to articulate images on the undulating surfaces of the cavern. Images of the creatures they hunt...images of the creatures their group depends upon for survival. Then they reverse their course in the pitch dark and resume the hunt. Give or take some details, this is the way in which, very likely, the Magdelanian art of the Paleolithic period, the proverbial Stone Age, was made.


2.  Now, consider this: the dialogical and complex interchange flushing back and forth between the necessities of shear survival and the ecstatic celebration of existence embodied in an efflorescence of depictions. Wherein, the confluence of raw necessity and rarified activity combine in an apotheosis of visual spectacle that directly addresses their existential condition in the world — one of magical dreamscapes pivoting around the perils of the successful hunt.


3. The eminence and the veneration of the coveted animal is therefore the crucial point in developing an understanding of the egalitarian intimacy required of the image and object makers in the Magdelanian caves and grottos. And the single most seductive idea that entrains the contemporary viewer when contemplating these images is interpathy...which is to say, the Magdelanian human's evident capacity not only to sympathize or empathize with individual animals but, far more profoundly, to empathize with the entirety of nature. With the natural world in all of its manifestations, including its persistent threats to their survival and the enveloping sense of mystery which, more probably than not, was mediated by the shamans of the various groups...and this over a period of tens of thousands of years, no less.


4.  Arnold Toynbee, the 20th century English historian, remarked that "Civilizations begin in the dance and end in rhetoric." ...One can extrapolate from numerous images of the shaman in the various grottos of, for example, Pech Merle, Niaux, Lascaux, and Altamira, that the dance was an integral element in shamanistic rituals. It is quite likely, as well, that hallucinogenic substances were employed in such rituals...specifically ergot fungus and the mushroom Amanita.


5.  Finally and in sum, there is the dicey issue of beauty and depictive accuracy or verisimilitude in the images of mastodons, deer, horses, bulls, birds, lions, etc. From our contemporary point of view, it is our particular sense of the beautiful and formal pictorial invention that grounds our aesthetic appreciation of these compelling images. But was beauty their fundamental concern? Very likely not. Instead, it was the fidelity of correspondence between the animal as witnessed in their environment and the same animal articulated on cave walls. That is, the core importance for the Magdelanian artist / shaman was the realistic accuracy of his that realism, or naturalism, re-enforced his intimate empathy for the animal, and thus secured success in the hunt.



Frank Gillette


1994 / NYC / Lecture delivered at SVA



1) Riegl, Alois, Historical Grammar of the Visual Arts, ed. K.M. Swoboda and O. Pächt (Graz, AUS: Graz University Press, 1966), p.51


2) Shakespeare, Wm., The Winter's Tale, IV:iii:1970-72 


3) Berger, John, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin Books, 1972), p.10



Recommended Reading:


Treasures of Prehistoric Art by A. Leroi-Gourhan (Abrams)


The Eternal Present by Sigfried Giedion (Bolligen / Pantheon)


The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams (Thames & Hudson)

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