Tuesday, 1 May 2012

How to use this blog

This blog is intended to supplement the e-book:
Evolution of Western Art, by Remy Dean.

It is expected that this weblog be used alongside the text in the book to provide the bibliography and visual reference. There is a blog entry to correspond with every entry in the book and each on-line post provides links to images and further reading, enabling the reader to adapt their own experience to match their interests. As the blog is now 'live' - it can be adapted to reflect new on-line content and to provide supplemental information as it becomes available.

In the web-active edition of the book, there is a link at the end of each entry that takes you to the corresponding entry on this blog. For ease of navigation, to read off-line and to support this weblog, please consider buying the e-book

Weblog posts have been uploaded in chronological order to match the structure of the book's text. So if you scroll from this post onwards, you will find the postings in the correct order to match the book. Alternatively, you can use the search box on the left to 'dip in' to the content at random, or use the label lists of work titles and artists names in the left column.

Read the Introduction: An Art Oddysey at amazon (click 'Look Indside') - where you can also purchase and download the full text.

You can download free Kindle reader software by following the appropriate link to the left of this blog, or by going here...

(Text from the book, and link up-dates, will be gradually added to the posts, as time and funding permits.)

Monday, 16 April 2012

Ancestors and Antecedents: Things (400,000 BCE)


image from Wikimedia Commons

Since humanity existed, we have made things, and some of those very first things could be considered to be art. The earliest known cave paintings are as old as 35,000 years, though fragments of pigment and the primitive equipment for grinding and mixing pigment, discovered in Zambia, has been dated between 350,000 and 400,000 years old – it is thought that these were used for making body paint and ‘make-up’, possibly for ritual purposes. 

Simple stone hammers, and flakes of flint for cutting, were in use by pre-human species more that two-and-a-half million years ago. Carved stone glyphs and artefacts such as stone hand axes are thought to date back more that one million years! Because we are dealing with minerals and stone, which in themselves are millions of years old, it is very difficult to date much of this evidence accurately. Even if we give-or-take several millennia, it seems safe to say that where we find evidence of the earliest humans and related hominid species, we find artefacts, and possibly some form of art. These are things made by our ancestors and date so far back in time that many of them were actually used by our close ‘cousins’, such as the Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus, Homo Neanderthalensis, and all the other Homo genus who have since become extinct. 

Obviously, our own ancestors, the forebears of modern humans, did not become extinct, though historians, geneticists and archaeologists believe that during the last ice age, the total human population of Earth dropped to around 10,000. Some think that at one earlier point, up to 100,000 years ago, there may have been as few as 2,000 humans in the entire world! It is generally accepted, through genetic evidence, that the entire human race can be traced back to a single ‘mother’. 

It is during the latter centuries of the ice age that modern humans migrated up from Africa and through Europe, or Eastward to Asia. This coincided with the displacement and eventual demise of all the other hominid species. These migratory clans of early ‘modern human’, Homo Sapiens, were set aside from their competitors by more than just their ultimate survival. Around this ‘make-or-break’ evolutionary bottle neck, our ancestors were the first to fashion ‘non-functional’ objects. 

To call these objects ‘non-functional’ is misleading as they appear to have had a key role to play in ensuring the survival of those peoples, and therefore must have served some social, psychological and/or metaphysical functions. So although these things were not necessarily tools, they seem to be either the by-product of, or the catalyst for, whatever characteristics our ancestors needed to survive. It seems that all human and humanoid species had some innate need to make art of some sort, hence the pigment and glyphs carved by many pre-human species, but it is the direct ancestors of modern humans that were the first to produce objects that we begin to recognise as art.

MORE: 

Short article at the Archaeology Journal's website about the discovery of pigments in Zambia which could be 400,000 years old

Hunter-Gather Migrants: Three Venuses (40,000 BCE)


Three Venuses, (left to right):
Venus of Hohle Fels, Venus of Dolní Věstonice, Venus of Willendorf


The earliest piece of art, so far discovered*, is known as the Venus of Hohle Fels and is made of ivory, carved to resemble a very well-endowed female figure. It is a small statuette, measuring only about six centimetres, but with proportionally huge breasts, belly, thighs and genitalia, whilst the head is reduced to little more than a nub. Radiocarbon dating supports the archaeological evidence and confirms the figure as being 35,000 to 40,000 years old, making it the oldest known artificial representation of the human figure.

Before 2008, when the Venus of Hohle Fels was discovered, that title had been held by another, so called ‘Venus’: the Venus of Dolní Věstonice, found in the Czech Republic in 1925 which is almost 30,000 years old and also remarkable in being the earliest known ceramic figurine, predating fired pottery. It is another small figure that fits neatly in the hand at around 11 centimetres and again we see the huge breasts, belly and thighs with the head and other features reduced to very basic forms.

The Venus of Hohle Fels also predates, by up to ten millennia, what had until its discovery been the oldest known piece of carved sculpture: the Venus of Willendorf, which was discovered a century earlier in 1908. This Venus remains the most widely known and artistically sophisticated of the three. It is also a small mobiliary (portable) item about 11 centimetres tall and carved out of limestone. Its head has no individual facial features and is instead carved all around with a design that resembles a woolly hat, thought to represent braided hair.

All three Venuses have striking similarities. They share the hugely emphasised female characteristics of breasts, belly, thighs and genitalia, though other features, notably the head and face are not represented or are reduced to symbols. This indicates that they are certainly not portraits of an actual individual person, but are symbolic of an ideal feminine state, representing abundance and fertility, both of the people and of the land. This abundance was virtually unknown during the times the three Venuses were made, times when the human race was fighting for daily survival.

The Venuses of Hohle Fels and Willendorf were carved a long way from where they were found, suggesting that the cultures that carved them had developed this skill and traded carvings for other things, or carried these items as they migrated, perhaps as charms, fetishes or totemic items. It seems that it was these peoples, who carved and made the first art, who managed to survive one of the most arduous periods in all human history. They managed to avoid the mass extinction that befell so many other species, including all other hominids. All those other peoples who did not make art, did not make it… This is the very first example of art saving the human race.

This period was in the late Ice Age as the glaciers receded and the oceans rose… There were cataclysmic climate changes so severe that they very nearly finished off all human species. Certainly, individuals as fat as those symbolised in these figurines would have been impossible, or extremely rare. If someone who looked anything like one of these Venuses actually did exist, then they would have been worth sticking with! This leads us to believe that the figures were probably religious symbols, representing fertility and abundance, or at least a hope for such fertility and abundance.

It seems that those clans, tribes and groups of humans who developed some form of art, also stood a better chance of survival during these harsh conditions. But how did making art help our kind to survive? There are three main theories to consider:

Theory one: technological advancement…

The very act of carving bone and stone and modelling in ceramic improved upon the technology and tools of the time. If a crafter can carve a figure from some hard substance, then it follows that they would also be able to fashion better and more useful tools, better stone axes, spearheads, flint knives and fish hooks from shell, for example. This would then give them a competitive advantage when it came to hunting, fishing and defending.

Theory two: trading goods…

If a culture had the time to carve such items, it implies that they were not spending every moment of the day in search of food and shelter. Instead, they carved items that could be traded in times of hardship, for food, shelter, tools and so on. This trade would also contribute to the strengthening of relations with other clans and would be the beginnings of a culture.

Theory three: belief in something greater…

This third theory is necessary to support the first two. The humans of the time developed a belief system that included the concept of a deity, or the personification of an ideal, perhaps what we would call a fertility goddess. A belief that something better was possible and even that there was something, or someone, ‘out there’ that could help in a dire situation that otherwise could feel completely hopeless. They were able to represent something that was not there, abundance and fertility, and keep that concept in mind when facing seemingly insurmountable odds. This itself may have been what saved our ancestors from giving up and helped them to struggle on for that extra day without food, or to climb that last mountain to see what the next valley held for them. They were able to represent abstract hope in a tangible form – it gave them something to hold on to, both literally and metaphorically…

MORE:


The 'Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind' exhibition was on at the British Museum, London, in 2013... there is still good info and related resources at their website.

* There are a few disputed claims of other artefacts of similar antiquity, such as the Hohlenstein-Stadel 'Lion-Man', which seems to be as old, but with more recent modifications... 

Cave Dwellers: Chauvet Caves (30,000 BCE)

The Chauvet Caves, in France, contain excellent early examples of prehistoric ‘parietal art’, which is a term for wall paintings and murals. The paintings, which were made and added to over a long period from 28,000 to 17,000 BCE, have a lovely sense of line and are clear and very well observed, mainly depicting animals. There is a particularly pleasing ‘sketch’ of a bear, a rhinoceros, and a row of different horses’ heads showing variations in the species, almost like a catalogue for identification. There is also a human hand print, using negative space to define the hand. This early kind of printing was achieved by the pigment being chewed and sprayed from between the teeth over the splayed hand that acted as a stencil.

Short article about the Chauvet Caves at the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

image from Wikimedia Commons





Click image above for more info and preview, or to buy this excellent documentary film (made by the great Werner Herzog) about the Chauvet Caves - it is 'required viewing' for anyone with even the slightest interest... available in multi format, region-free, Blu-ray edition including 2D and 3D versions, or if you prefer a standard DVD, use this link...

Cave Dwellers: Lascaux Caves (16,000 BCE)

Some of the most famous and best examples of prehistoric cave wall art can be found in the Lascaux Caves, also in France. These paintings are similar to the parietal art at Chauvet Caves, but are more recent, being made over a period from around 16,000 to 14,000 BCE. In both examples the drawings overlap and are painted on the walls without any defined boundaries. At Lascaux, the pigment is perhaps stronger and the style a little more stylised. The forms more ‘coloured-in’, yet the style remains fundamentally the same, almost as if done by one artist. This style of drawing spans a period of around 5,000 years, so it has actually been executed by many many generations of artists. So what can this tell us? This indicates that the cave art, though obviously executed with an aesthetic sense, is formulated in a similar way as a hieroglyphic language. Although the earlier cave paintings of beasts were obviously observed ‘from life’, eventually an accepted prescribed way to draw each of them developed. So, this is not ‘expressive’ art, it is more like a type of picture writing and follows a set of patterns that have become meaningful to the culture that produced them.

This propensity to follow set-out methods and perpetuate a ‘template’ approach to visual art, seems to become ingrained in the human psyche and continue through countless generations until challenged by the Pharaoh Akhenaton… but more about him later… about another 15,000 years later (as the chronometer flies).

As with the three Venuses, we do not know for sure the reasons why those prehistoric people painted on their cave walls. There has been a lot of educated guesswork, sometimes supported by archaeological evidence. It could have been the graffiti of their time, or the equivalent of clip art… Again, we have three main theories to consider:

Theory one: documentary…

One recurring motif in prehistoric cave art is the row of similar-though-slightly-different animals, very much like a type of identification chart. So perhaps one of the functions of the drawings was to document the different species of animals for instruction and education. “Hunt these, run away from those.” Perhaps it was simply a record of what they saw and how they lived.

Theory two: storytelling…

The images are painted onto the cave walls in a seemingly random order and some of them are in very dark recesses, and would only ever have been visible by firelight. This implies that the act of going to see them, or having them revealed, was meaningful in some way. Many of the beasts that are portrayed would not have been food animals, and some may have been seen only during their seasonal migrations. Perhaps the images were used as backdrops that set the scene in terms of seasons and the images were revealed in some sort of narrative order. The stories could have served to entertain, to educate, or both.

Theory three: magic…

In some caves, there are figures that combine human and animal attributes. Some human figures, on closer inspection, have hooves instead of feet. A stag rearing up on its hind legs, on closer inspection, is a human imitating the beast by wearing animal furs and horned headdress. This leads many to believe that the paintings of animals have some symbolic, if not magical significance.

One possible motivation is the practice of sympathetic magic, which is a form of superstition that leads to a belief that a representation of a thing can have an effect upon the real thing. (A current example would be a voodoo doll.) The people may have painted the animals in an attempt to exert some sort of influence over them. A possible scenario would be that the animals are seen, but then disappear. The cave dwellers paint pictures of those animals, and they re-appear. This may lead to a belief that the act of painting the animals caused them to come back. This then becomes self-fulfilling, “If you paint them, they will come”. We of course would understand that the herds migrated away and then passed back through the area as the seasons changed… They would have (almost certainly) returned whether their effigies had been painted onto the cave walls or not.

Shamanism could be called a form of magic and is still widely practiced today. A shaman is a person of wisdom and power who is ‘in-tune’ with the natural world. Aboriginal Australians, Native Americans, Druids and practitioners of the Asatru philosophies are all examples of today’s shamanic cultures. Generally, shamanistic cultures believe that there are several different worlds that coexist and overlay each other – the world of the living, the world of the ancestors, the world of dreams and the spiritual realms. To a shaman, all of these worlds are equally ‘real’ and influence each other. Shamanism is also closely associated with animism, a belief that there is a life force that unites everything, and that everything has a spirit. The shaman works with this life force in order to better understand the spirit of a thing, place or animal.

In the prehistoric period, early humans would not have seen themselves as very different from the animals around them, particularly the social carnivores such as wolves and big cat species, and would have closely observed them to learn from their behaviours. You want to hunt antelope? Then observe other successful hunters and learn the techniques of tracking, camouflage and stealth needed to catch such very fast prey. The deep understanding of the behaviour of other animal species, both hunter and prey, would have been essential knowledge and the cave art could be a record of the on-going contemplation and discussion relating to this pursuit. Drawing something is a very good method of study as you have to observe and distil the essential features. This is why drawing from life is still at the core of art and design courses to this day, despite the development of photography and digital media.

The motivation to make cave wall paintings was probably a combination of all these ideas and could have been different from one clan to another, from one millennia to another. Then as now, art had the potential to entertain, educate, document, challenge, change, and to transcend.

MORE:

Article at the BBC website about designs found in the Lascaux Caves that could be the earliest star charts


Virtual Visit - walk through the cave system via this interactive website

People of Göbekli Tepe: Stone Circles (10,000 BCE)

Article about Göbekli Tepe at the Smithsonian website with a good Göbekli Tepe photo gallery

Another interesting article about Göbekli Tepe at the National Geographic website

People of Çatalhöyük: Shrines to the Mother and the Cow (7,000 BCE)

Excellent website dedicated to the on-going excavations and discoveries at the Çatalhöyük site



Click image above to preview or buy this Kindle book about the Çatalhöyük discoveries


Mesopotamians: Susa Beaker (5,000 – 4,000 BCE)



Image-based on-line 'tutorial' about the development of ancient ceramics

Ancient Egyptians: The Pyramids (2,655 – 2,575 BCE)




images (C) Remy Dean - please credit

Minoans: Bull’s Head Libation Vessel (1,600 – 1,500 BCE)

photos by Remy Dean
photos (C) Remy Dean - please credit

Minoans: The ‘New Palace’ at Knossos (1,600 – 1,500 BCE)

photo by Remy Dean

Above: The 'red devil' bull mural at the New Palace

photo by Remy Dean

Above: The throne room of King Minos
photo by Remy Dean

Above: The main approach road into Knossos - the earliest known paved roadway

These images (C) Remy Dean - please credit

Akhenaten: Art of the Amarna Period (1353 – 1334 BCE)

Interesting article about Akhenaten with photo gallery at Ancient Egypt website



Click image above for reviews or to buy this book about Akhenaten and his reign at Amarna

Thutmose: Bust of Queen Nefertiti (circa 1340 BCE)

Images of this sculpture with accompanying notes at the Berlin Egyptian Museum website

Funerary Artists: Death Mask of Tutankhamen (1346 BCE)


Click image above for reviews or to buy this catalogue from National Geographic publishing that accompanied a major touring exhibition of the treasures of Tutankhamun
BBC gallery of images showing treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun / Tutankhamen

Archaic Greeks: Temple Statuary (1,100 – 450 BCE)


Babylonians: The City of Babylon and The Ishtar Gate (604 – 562 BCE)



Kritios (attrib): Kritios Ephebe aka The Critian Boy (480 – 490 BCE)



More than eight centuries after the reign of Akhenaten, as the late Archaic period blurs into the early Classical, we see signs that artists, particularly sculptors, are again beginning to really look at the world around them and reflect what they observe. The use of portraits can, by now, be found on mummy cases of the Greco-Egyptian period, though these are highly stylised.

One artefact has been found that literally embodies a radical new way, not only of observing from life, but in the understanding of life. It is known as The Critian Boy. Its name comes from being attributed by some scholars to the sculptor Kiritios, because it bears some resemblance to other works by him and his students.

 Remarkable in its naturalistic, anatomical accuracy, this scaled-down statuette (less than a metre tall) shows a significant and sudden shift in the way that the human body is represented and is one of the earliest examples of anatomically accurate sculpture created from careful and direct observation of a subject. Skilfully carved from white marble, it demonstrates a good knowledge, not only of the surface but also of the underlying skeleton and mechanics, of the body. All the major muscle groups are represented, correctly proportioned and the stance is a realistic, weight-bearing one. This marks the dawn of humanism in art.

Preview or Buy Evolution of Western Art

Phideas (attrib): Riace Warriors (circa 450 BCE)



Click image above for reviews or to buy this excellent film about the Spartan stand against the Persian onslaught - historically accurate, all be it dressed with generous artistic licence... 
Click image below for reviews or to buy this book about Classical Greek art