Sunday, 3 February 2019

How Art Began? Antony Gormley on Prehistoric Art

The British sculptor, Antony Gormley, in a recent television programme (available on BBC I-Player until the end of February), explored the question of how art began, among some of the earliest human hunter-gatherer groups during the Pleistocene era (between 2.6 million and 11.7 thousand years ago). Like the exploration of the same topic by the German film-director, Werner Herzog, in his documentary, "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams", his viewpoint is an intensely personal one: that of an artist, confronting the work of his fellow artists (albeit across a chasm spanning tens of millennia); rather than that of an archaeologist or prehistorian, trying to make sense of "Palaeolithic art," alongside other categories of material evidence. Whilst Herzog's exploration was of a specific site (the Chauvet Cave, in the French valley of the Ardeche), Gormley, refreshingly, takes a truly Global perspective, travelling through France and Spain, and on to Australia, by way of Indonesia, taking in, along the way, some of the most important recent discoveries in his field of interest.

Antony Gormley and I are separated in age by just fifteen years, and, early in our careers, we both undertook journeys through Europe, alighting (it would seem from the glimpses of his photo album) at many of the same prehistoric sites. His journey took place at the end of his training at the Slade School of Art; whereas my various journeys happened before, during, and after my archaeological studies at Cambridge; so it would be unsurprising if we were seeking answers to different questions (although he had previously followed the same course at Cambridge that I would later follow, and would surely have been taught by some of the same people).

Intriguingly for a sculptor, Gormley has almost nothing to say about Palaeolithic sculpture (there is plenty of it, in ivory, bone, and stone, and some of the finest pieces featured in the British Museum's recent "Ice Age Art" exhibition), focusing instead on the paintings and engravings found on the walls of caves, and on outcrops of rock. His journey begins, unsurprisingly, in the French valley of the Dordogne, at the site of Les Combarelles, which featured in my youthful "Grand Tour," as it did in his.

The cave of Les Combarelles. Photo: Ethan Doyle White (licensed under CCA).

Engraving of a lion, Les Combarelles. Photo: Heinrich Wendel (licensed under CCA).

The cave contains more than six hundred paintings and engravings, made by hunter-gatherers between thirteen and eleven thousand years ago. For Gormley, it is "a cathedral of memory, but also of joy in living things," and reflects the timeless concern of the artist with the question: "what does it feel like to be alive now." He continues to the nearby cave of Font-de-Gaume, where the art is seventeen thousand year old. "It's the act of drawing that's the thing," he concludes, "and maybe it came, and maybe it didn't." We must, he insists, "give up on the idea of the hairy caveman being a brute," but I imagine that he must have given up on such ideas, as I had, before beginning his studies, or we would neither of us have made the early-career "pilgrimages" that we did.

Reindeer depicted on the wall of Fond-de-Gaume. Image: H. Breuil, 1912 (image is in the Public Domain).

At Pech-Merle, he meets the French prehistorian, Michel Lorblanchet, who has undertaken an experimental reconstruction of some of the painted works.

Hand-stencil from Pech-Merle. Photo: French Ministry of Culture, PA00094994 (image is in the Public Domain).

Horses depicted at Pech-Merle. Photo: Kersti Nebelsiek (image is in the Public Domain).

Lorblanchet considers sites such as Pech-Merle, Font-de-Gaume, and Les Combarelles as "Temples of Nature," and he is surely influenced, here, by his Eighteenth Century compatriot, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who romanticised the status of hunter-gatherers as existing in an idyllic "state of nature." Rousseau's vision, in turn, goes back to the Classical ideas of the Greek poet, Hesiod, and the Roman Ovid:

"No cities were yet ringed round with deep, precipitous earthworks; long straight trumpets and curved bronze horns never summoned to battle ... but nations were free to practice the gentle arts of peace. The Earth was equally free and at rest, untouched by the hoe, unscathed by the plough-share, supplying all needs from its natural resources. Content to enjoy the food that required no painful producing, men simply gathered arbutus fruit and mountain strawberries ..." (Ovid's Metamorphoses, translated by David Raeburn, Penguin Classics).

This is unlikely to have been the view of an Ice Age forager-artist, standing with her daughters looking down on the valley of the Lot, or the Dordogne.

At Niaux, in the French Pyrenees, Gormley encounters "a very different kind of imagery." It reminds him of the work of Picasso, and, as he explains, he does not care for Picasso "because he was a predator." For him, this art is full of egotism, and obsessed with death, infused with "our species sense of superiority, and the right to end the lives of other creatures." He sees in it "the beginning of the end" of a world view based on a appreciation of the human role within nature, yet its artists lived between twelve and fourteen thousand years ago, and may well have been the contemporaries of those at Les Combarelles. Perhaps, in his own terms, Gormley has simply encountered an individual artist for whom he does not care?

Bison depicted at Niaux. Photo: HTO (image is in the Public Domain).

The journey continues into Spain, where Gormley visits the site of La Cueva del Castillo. The art here is, at least superficially, similar to some of that at Pech-Merle, but the surprise comes with the dating: the hand-stencils here go back some forty thousand, eight hundred years, meaning that a wider chasm separates its artists from those of Niaux or Les Combarelles than separates them from contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, or Antony Gormley himself.

Paintings in the Cueva del Castillo. Photo: Government of Cantabria (licensed under CCA).

Hand-stencils in the Cueva del Castillo. Photo: Miguel Anguel de Arribas (licensed under CCA).

This poses further questions. Gormley was presumably taught at Cambridge, as I was, that the practice of art was unique to fully modern humans, our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens. Yet the dates from El Castillo, and other sites in Spain (some going back more than sixty thousand years) raise the likelihood that art was being produced by some of the other human species (including Neanderthals) with whom our ancestors shared the Earth over a period of millennia (most modern Europeans, in any case, share a proportion of Neanderthal DNA, showing that the two species not only interbred, but that the offspring were fertile, and some of them were, themselves, our ancestors).

Further surprises (at least for those who have not been following the most recent discoveries at conferences, or via social media) come from further afield. At Petta Kare, on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, hand stencils remarkably like those from El Castillo and Pech-Merle have been found to date back forty thousand years; and the site itself seems to have continued in use for more than a millennium, with later artists, around thirty thousand years ago, adding representations of the babirusa, a native wild pig (images not publicly available, although they are shown in Gormley's film).

Hand-stencils from Petta Kare. Photo: Cahyo Ramadhani (licensed under CCA).

In Australia, the dating evidence is, for the moment, more ambiguous, but the earliest art may date back as far as sixty thousand years. Here again, however, we encounter the restless ghosts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Ovid, and Hesiod; which haunt not the sacred places of the Aboriginal Australians, but rather the deepest recesses of our own European imaginations. Modern Aboriginals, some of them artists themselves, are presented as the direct inheritors of this ancient tradition, but can this be any more true than to see Antony Gormley as standing in a direct line of succession from the unnamed masters (or, indeed, mistresses) of Pech-Merle?

Human figures from Kimberley, Western Australia. Photo: Tim JN1 (licensed under CCA).

Aboriginals are not "survivors" from the Palaeolithic (except in the sense that we all are), clinging to a tradition that the rest of us abandoned more than ten centuries ago, but, like us, inventors and innovators of their own dynamic culture. Antony Gormley is, I suspect, very likely to be proven right in his belief that we would find early prehistoric art in other regions of the world (in Africa and India, for example), "if only we looked hard enough." In the course of this looking, we might well discover that the human concern with "leaving a trace," which we see alike in the surviving works of the World's earliest artists, and in those of contemporary artists around the World, is written into the DNA, not only of our species (Homo sapiens sapiens), but of an entire genus (Homo), of which we happen to be the only surviving representatives.

Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books can be purchased from Amazon.