Painting before 1300 AD (2): Prehistoric

Painting before 1300 AD (2): Prehistoric

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a couple dozen essays on the history of painting for BeyondBooks.com, a subscription service that provided online supplementary materials for high-school students. The site’s owners have given me permission to publish the essays (copyright © 2001 Beyond Books) on my website. This lightly edited essay is the second of six in the section on painting before 1300 AD.

It’s 30,000 BC, give or take a few thousand years. No one’s counting; no one can. You’re living with your tribe in southern Europe. You’ve chased some wild animals out of a cave and taken up residence there, because it’s warmer and safer than living outside. You’ve fashioned crude clothing from the pelts of animals you’ve trapped, because you would die without such protection. You’ve created a few rough stone tools, which is why scholars eventually named this period “Paleolithic” – the “old stone age”. You eat animals and fish cooked over an open fire, and berries if you can find them. You can barely talk. You certainly can’t write. The filthy and malnourished members of your tribe die young and often violently, or from what would today be minor injuries and maladies.

You are barely surviving, and yet, hundreds of feet into the frightening black depths of your cave, in the light of sputtering animal-fat lamps, some members of your tribe are wielding sticks dipped in a mixture of dirt, rocks, and fat, producing paintings on the rough ceilings and walls. These are the earliest surviving paintings produced by mankind. Such works occur not just once, but in over 130 caves discovered to date. The most notable are at Lascaux, in southern France, and Altamira, in nnorthern Spain. (Map of caves with paintings is here.)

Horse from Lascaux. Image: Wikipedia
Bison from Altamira. Image: Wikipedia
Ceiling at Altamira. Image: Wikipedia

What did the earliest artists draw, and what drove them to it?

These artists depicted what mattered most to them: the animals that their tribe hunted, including bison, deer, wild boars, and horses. Some of the figures are quite large – one bull at Lascaux is 18 feet long, and some of the bison there are five feet. More surprising is the quality of some of the work. The proportions are correct, the poses are lifelike, the outlines firm and vigorous. A figure may be shaded to suggest the roundness of the animal, stippled to indicate the texture of its pelt, even drawn on a natural protrusion of the rock surface to give its form more fullness. Clearly these paintings were not first efforts, even though we have not discovered any earlier ones.

Animals from Lascaux, showing stippling for texture and color. Image: Wikipedia

Why did early men expend the time and effort to execute these drawings? Surely not as mere wall decorations. (“George, dear, we could use a nice bison picture over the sleeping straw.”) In fact, only in a single room at Altamira do traces of human habitation exist in a room that has paintings. Most likely the paintings had a magical function, either to ensure a good hunt or to promote the fertility of the animals the tribe hunted.

The fact is, we don’t know for sure why these prehistoric paintings were created, and we never will. “Prehistoric” doesn’t just mean no one bothered to note the important dates and events that we think of as history. It means no one could write, so there’s no written record of anything. We don’t know how primitive man believed the world worked, what he hoped for, what he thought controlled his life, what he thought happened after death, or whether he attributed powers and thoughts to animals. While we can make educated guesses from archaeological evidence and from the study of isolated modern tribes, in the end, because no writings from the period exist, we cannot know the significance of works such as the cave paintings. We can, however, appreciate the effort involved in producing them, and the importance that they must have held for the primitive men who created them.

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  • This essay is dedicated to my friend Sylvia Bokor, who did a wonderful talk on innovations in painting back in the mid-1990s. She had the ill manners to die before I could persuade her to publish it. (I tried often!) I’ve used what I remember as an inspiration.
  • This amazing video lets you tour the Lascaux caves and get a sense of their size. Now imagine entering them with only a guttering torch to find your way … Something powerful was driving those people.
  • At the Chavet cave, discovered in France in 1994, over 400 paintings and engravings have been found. Most of them are of … rhinoceroses?! Click here to see photos and learn more about the Chavet cave.
  • I’ve only lightly edited this essay because the copyright is held by BeyondBooks.com. I’m using it to get my mind back in gear for getting into book form my Innovators in Painting, a companion to my Innovators in Sculpture. The Innovators books focus not on the art of separate civilizations, but on the major innovations that gave all artists greater power to make viewers stop, look, and think about sculptures.
  • Want wonderful art delivered weekly to your inbox? Check out my free Sunday Recommendations list and my Patreon page (free or by subscription): details here.

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