Sunday, January 27, 2008

Bison, 15000 BCE
Musée national de Préhistoire
Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, Aquitaine, France
image source:

Venus of Laussel

The Venus of Laussel (Marquay),
Bas-relief of Female, c. 20,000 BCE

she holds a bison horn in one hand.
Photo Museum of Aquitane, Bordeaux

Friday, January 25, 2008

Venus of Willendorf

Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna


"The entirely preserved figurine made of fine limestone is 11 cm tall and shows a corpulent woman with stout hips, a voluminous belly and heavy breasts. A comparatively big head is put upon week shoulders. Thighs and shanks are formed naturally, but shortened. The arms are just outlined; the feet and the face are completely missing. On the inclined head is designed a complicated hairstyle made of parallel curls extending to the neck. Both wrists are decorated with ragged arm-rings. Originally the figurine was painted thickly with red colour. The so-called „Venus of Willendorf" was found on August 7th, 1908 during a systematic excavation in the ninth and highest layer of Site II in Willendorf."
Museum of Natural History, Vienna
Department of Prehistory


Sunday, January 20, 2008

Early sculpture: the Lion-Man

The "Lion Man" from Hohlenstein-Stadel
Heigth 28 cm, about 6 cm diameter. Made of mammouth ivory
Found in the cave of Hohlenstein-Stadel in the Valley of Lone,
Baden-Württemberg (Germany).
Dated as Aurignacien, about 30,000 years ago

The Lion Man (also referred to as Lion Woman, for the lack of specific sexual attributes in the statuette) is the “ancestor” of Mickey Mouse and of all the anthropomorphic animal creatures of folk- tales and fairy-tales around the world, as well as religious symbols (for instance, in Egyptian art and religion), totemic figures and emblems, etc.

Anthropomorphic images propose correlations between the human world and the world of animals. These correlations may be considered as purely intellectual, that is belonging to the sphere of the symbolic, of socio-cultural taxonomies, of language games, etc. They may, alternatively, be related to the metaphysical sphere of a “savage ontology” and a native cosmic anthropology. Or they may refer to both: to the intellectual operations and communicative strategies of early man and of modern “primitives”, and to the apprehension of the structures of reality itself, that is, to a world in which the separation between knowledge and belief has not yet taken place. In fact: a world in which that separation cannot take place for it will amount to the destruction of the (cosmic) order of communication that constitutes, indeed, the stuff of reality.

Anthropomorphism is an important element in shamanic belief-systems and cultures. The practices and beliefs of shamanism as a key to the understanding of prehistoric art is an idea developed and applied by Lewis-Williams, Clottes, and other contemporary researchers.

M.G. Lima

Cave of Hohlenstein-Stadel

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Prehistoric Rock Art in Africa: the Apollo 11 Cave painted slabs (Namibia)

Painted Slab, Apollo 11 Cave, Namibia, approx. 5"x4¼".
2600 to 2800 BCE
image source:

"The seven slabs of rock with traces of animal figures that were found in the Apollo 11 Cave in the Huns Mountains of southwestern Namibia have been dated with unusual precision for ancient rock art. Originally brought to the site from elsewhere, the stones were painted in charcoal, ocher, and white. Until recently, the Apollo 11 stones were the oldest known artwork of any kind from the African continent. More recent discoveries of incised ocher date back almost as far as 100,000 B.C., making Africa home to the oldest images in the world."

from: Apollo 11 (ca. 25,500–23,500 b.c.) and Wonderwerk (ca. 8000 b.c.) Cave Stones, Metropolitan Museum website

On art and "conceptual realism"

The characteristic profile view of an animal (here a quadruped of uncertain species) is the equivalent of a "pictorial definition", providing the most complete information for prompt identification of the depicted being. In the image above it is displayed one of the oldest known examples of an approach to form and to representation that stresses the idea of the structural unity of the thing depicted, rather than a momentary, subjective, and therefore relative and dynamic view of an object or phenomenon.

The notion of structural unity will allow, or rather, demand that the most characteristic elements be displayed in the representation: therefore frontal and lateral views will be combined into one characteristic form. This sort of “conceptual” approach to form, that is, embodying our knowledge of what is represented, rather than the actual optical experience, will have a long history, marking artistic representation in prehistoric times as well as in the arts of the early civilizations and beyond.

Also designated as “law of frontality” or “conceptual realism”, this approach is linked by some authors to the very nature of the image in archaic mentality: the image is not pure “representation”, an abstract, purely mental or symbolic equivalent, but a double of the object, a real duplication of the real object. Reality itself is multidimensional, formed by layers that confront each other and interact in complex ways, as the image interacts with its object. The power of the image, therefore, in the depiction of an animated reality, is a living power. Accordingly, the “law of frontality” will be applied strictly and systematically in the depiction of human beings in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt.

Marcelo G. Lima


Huyghe, Rene - Art forms and societies (in Chapter 3 - Agrarian Empires)
Larousse Encyclopedia of Prehistoric and Ancient Art, London: 1967

Apollo 11 excavation site

Upper Paleolithic Art in Europe

Upper Paleolithic Art in Europe Thin dark blue line: coastline Thick light blue (cyan) line: limits of the main glaciations Red tones: mural art Green tones: portable art

Source: Engish wikipedia en:Image:Upper Paleolihic Art in Europe.gif, Based in A. Moure, El Origen del Hombre, Historia 16 ed. ISBN 84-7679-127-5

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Beginnings of Art

(various sites in France)

The capacity to enjoy aspects of experience that relate to the relatively autonomous play of perceptual abilities and motor activities resulting in a sort of realization and confirmation of our “sensuous self” (however mediated), that is, our corporeal being and vital impulses, is an important part of what we may call “aesthetic satisfaction”.

Leroi-Gourhan (*) lists three main domains of the “expression of aesthetic feeling” or “aesthetic satisfaction” related to the early stages of humanity that may contribute to our understanding of the beginnings of art:

1) Psycho-physiological impressions: having its own “pre-history” in the animal world, are related to “the issue of predatory and sexual incentives”, exemplified, for instance, in bodily ornamentation such as the canines of animals used as pendants. The impressions and emotions related here are “not directly aesthetic”, but constitute one of the elementary sources and, according to Leroi-Gourhan, an initial mode of manifestation of the experience of “beauty”.

2) Magic-religious: the use of animal canines as ornamentation refers as well to the appropriation of the animal’s perceived potency and manifested powers.

In this regard we can also observe that, if mimesis is adaptive behavior (with a biological basis, according to the function of mimicry in the natural world), the perception of an animated world of nature will lead man to devise ways of getting closer to, modeling and transforming himself, identifying himself to those other beings and forms of life with their unique powers. Mimetic behavior is at the source of artistic developments.

3) Techno-economic: in the creation of stone implements, according to Leroi-Gourhan, the “animal aesthetics” of the preceding domains is supplemented by “functional aesthetics”. The creator of implements is here, as his skills and knowledge develop, the creator of forms more and more regular and more and more adapted to their functions. The development of form results in economy of materials and gestures, the precision of work creating precise instruments, the creation of forms expressing total mastery and attaining a “purity” of design that characterizes, for Leroi-Gourhan, the mark of the “beautiful”. We have at this point, for the anthropologist, the sign of a conscious appreciation of formal qualities, that is, of the “aesthetic” as such.

“Conscious art” (the term is by Leroi-Gourhan) evolves from what we may call an “unconscious artistic element”, or rather, elements that are part of activities guided by different aims but that involve, all of them, a realization of a sort of “final”, that is, complete form or stage related to vital demands, abilities and impulses.

A complete form integrates material and activities within itself in such a way that parallels the classic notion of the identity between form and content in the realized work of art. In Hegel’s version: the becoming form of content, and the becoming content of form. That is, a complete form is without residues of materials and of human energies: all is spent and yet nothing is lost. The artwork is work conscious of it’s own self-realization.

Art is certainly not a separate domain of activity for early man. But perhaps we may conclude that what we call nowadays artistic behavior and capacities, integrating perceptual, imaginative and intellectual abilities, formed one of the central structuring factors of early human activity, contributing to success in adaptation, survival and development.

Marcelo G. Lima

(*) Leroi-Gourhan, A. The Beginnings of Art in Larousse Encyclopedia of Prehistoric and Ancient Art, London: 1967

Monday, January 14, 2008

"There is no such thing as art. There are only artists"

The dictum by Gombrich, in the introduction of his well-known The Story of Art , is perhaps less “clear” than it may appear at first. To apparently "shift" the problematic of art from objects, categories and processes to the agent, the producer, does not eliminate the need to clarify the concept “art” itself.

For it is evident that the artist, as a producer, is defined by his product. An artist is somebody who makes art. To identify the artist we must be able “first” to tell, to identify, to know the artistic product, therefore to say both what is art and what art “is”.

Gombrich’s “shift” may bring to mind other attempts to a “reductive” approach to the History of Art, such as Wolfflin’s “Art History Without Names”, or The History of Art as the History of Styles in their inner, that is logical-formal, developments, what we may call: the notion of artistic style as structure.

But certainly Gombrich’s formula was not intended as an attempt to an “original” art historical method, but rather, in a more concise or simplified way, to introduce the problematic at the core of the art historical discipline. Namely, the relative constant presence at different times and places of image making activities and related “artistic”, that is, formal-symbolic practices, and the rather restricted modern notion of Art, “with a capital A”, in regard to the diversity of contexts and functions of the form-making activities in history.

In other words, the “universalism” of the very notion of a (unique, self-identical, continuous) History of Art, developing from Prehistoric times to the present, encompassing centuries, territories, cultures and a great diversity of forms of activities and meanings, has its origin in the Renaissance. It takes its definite form in the 19th century and is predicated on a vision constructed mainly from the European experience. An experience that culminates in the "L'art pour l'art" or “Art for Art’s Sake” idea of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"L'art pour l'art" is also, contrary to appearances, less of a clear response to the question of art than the very index or summary of the complexity of the problem of art as developed in history and in theory in the construction of the Modern World and the Modern Experience.

“Art with a capital A has become something of a bogey and a fetish”, writes Gombrich. In other words, a ghost to be exorcised so the beginner can be lured into the realm of the history of artistic practices and products leaving at the door some of his anxieties, his assumptions or prejudices.

“There are no wrong reasons for liking a statue or a picture.[ …] There are wrong reasons for disliking a work of art”, writes the art-historian. And the beginner may be allowed, after all, to keep at least some of his assumptions or prejudices. The price to be paid for a liberal lesson on “formal tolerance”?