Friday 22 June 2007 9 responses

Our search into the meaning and importance of imagery begins with drawings in a cave from some 31,000 years ago at Chauvet. Clearly these are not graffiti or random daubings to pass time, they are indeed skilled representations of dangerous animals with the odd human figure. Various dots and animal figures at Lascaux have been said by some, including an astronomer, to represent constellations and stars. Perhaps partly in order to investigate the authenticity of this find people from various disciplines were invited to view the cave paintings including anthropologists, artists and scientists. One sculptor notes how carefully the surface was prepared and how a particular cave was used, whilst another in the same complex might have been equally suitable contained no such paintings at all. It all points to a great deal of organisation. Whatever we might think the artists who produced this work were not primitive, they were intelligent people with vision who could see ahead in their efforts to overcome problems. They would certainly have had a far different mind set to our own and for that reason alone the problems of discovering the purpose of these paintings are considerable. For example the extender for the pigments in these works was not water but baryte and potassium feldspar. How else would they still be fresh to the eye even today. The great problem of conserving the cave paintings at Lascaux has been the ingress of people wanting to look.

Commonly held wisdom has long suggested that these paintings were nothing other than shamanistic efforts for attracting good hunting. That does seem have its problems though. For one the animals depicted for the most part were not part of the local diet and deer which was, is not shown at all. If such paintings were the work of a shaman then wouldn't you expect to see them in various locations demanded by the hunt? There is of course another considerable problem arising from the Chauvet discovery. Modern man is thought to have found his way into what we now call Europe around 30,000 or so years ago and these paintings are of the same period. There is no discovery to suggest a necessary building up of skills, just the evidence to suggest that an organised society quite suddenly appeared on the scene.

We could spend a great deal of time discussing what these paintings might not be and never arrive at the important conclusion as to what they really were. It is apparent that they were not the effort of some local artist, either passing time, finding self expression or making a living from them. They were part of a much greater scheme of things.

All good academics like to have solid evidence on which to build a hypothesis but there is very little of use in this part of France. The one significant thing we do know is that this time was the end of an ice age. Temperatures were rising and this location was becoming inhabitable by people from farther south. Another bit of commonly held wisdom says these people would have been hunter gatherers with no agricultural knowledge.

So here we are trying to decide why image making should be so important to these people with scarcely a shred of evidence. Neither do we have a hope of entering their mind set to truly understand their thinking. Conjecture may be the best thing on offer. True we can examine what seem to be similar societies of the present time, but I wouldn't want to bet on that for any sound conclusion. The caves at Chauvet and Lascaux were surely on such a scale to suggest a cathedral like importance. Whether for mobile hunter gatherers or an agricultural people they had to be centres of considerable importance.

A rather negative piece of evidence is that they didn't have writing so would want to record events. But these paintings are not apparently of specific events. They might have wanted to record hunting kills for the time of year but it would be rather a grand gesture for such a simple purpose. Most historical records would be held by tribes in memory and passed on verbally.

If we can now think in terms of logic and what we do know the image is powerful because it does not require the same thinking as spoken or written language. There need not be the same filters which prevent direct communication with the emotions. The response is often instant and instinctive. As Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message.

Now I'm going off to have another think about this and you might want to join me.

Mike Fone

9 responses: to “ POWER OF THE IMAGE so far...

  • Kim 26.6.07

    Hi Mikey
    the power of the image?....I suppose the ultimate medium would be film .....in the visual sense....I saw Pan's Labrynth just recently and I was totally immersed in the visual imagery....even though it was subtitled.....I was spellbound.....I think that when the image....goes beyond reality then the viewer is engaged.....of course art is beyond reality....but when the image actually talks and moves...then the viewer becomes part of the lanscape......Interesting...there was a portrait of an opera singer entered in the Archibald this year and the artist attached an audio device to the painting (it was a recording of the lady singing one of her arias).....some said it was a publicity stunt but maybe the artist is just a little ahead of his time.....

  • HDReader 26.6.07

    Great post and yes the power of the the image proceeds from neurobiology and evolution of the brain. We are hardwired for it. So what came first visual arts or language (and nonwritten language arts)? We know they were drawing these before writing, but were they drawing them before speaking? Hmmm.

  • Kim 26.6.07

    yes I see what you mean HD and a good question..like the chicken before the egg theory.....and who could possibly tell us if they were drawing before they spoke....no one except perhaps the art works that they left behind....
    your photos are perfect examples of engaging the viewer in such a way that you know the landscape is unreal in this physical world but could be real in the realms of our imagination.....

  • Anonymous 27.6.07

    Kim, I wouldn't doubt that the viewer having been moved emotionally by the aria could then be more receptive to the portait painters intent.

    hd,it seems prehistory has been assumption based on assumption. The discovery of Chauvet with its early date has blown that all apart. Here's a linguist who thinks properly formed speech came later.

    We cannot enter the mindset of that time to form an understanding of those people, but another question is did their consciousness even work in quite the same way as that of man today.

  • Kim 27.6.07

    I think the problem might be with the link
    ...I've noticed that the links don't show in the comments section....
    I posted this through 'other' with your website Mikey...
    I am going to check out your link as I am interested to know which came first.......

  • Kim 27.6.07

    Goodness Mikey
    hard to believe that early man used stones and iron for ther words..fascinating.....I suppose very dangerous for those who liked to chat a lot !!!!

  • Anonymous 28.6.07

    This art must have been all the more meaningful and powerful to those people who weren't saturated with it. I'm trying to use my imagination to think how different their consciousness must have been. There were none of the complexities of modern life, yet these cave paintings suggest the need for much higher things.


  • Anonymous 28.6.07

    It is not to say there was no dark side to man's nature at Chauvet thirty two thousand years ago if we assert his innocence. There was no clutter, no memory of horror such as The Great War with that meaningless slaughter which engaged thinkers such as Camus and Sartre. There would have been a profound difference in the awareness of self. In fact the cave paintings suggest a lack of self awareness in the way of present day man. But do the cave images represent a watershed, a landmark in the thought processes of prehistoric man.


  • Kim 29.6.07

    Perhaps Mikey
    their life may have been too simple and doesn't the human brain desire all of the complexities that is present in every day society......but is it good for us...