Posts Tagged ‘Palaeolithic’

Antony Gormley Presents Programme on Stone Age Art

January 25, 2019

According to the Radio Times for 26th January to 1st February 2019, tomorrow, Saturday, 26th January, Antony Gormley will be presenting a programme on the origins of art way back in the Stone Age. As well as trotting round the world looking at various Paleolithic sites, he also meets and talks to the modern practitioners of this ancient art, Aboriginal Australians. The programme’s entitled ‘Antony Gormley: How Art Began’, and the blurb for it on page 52 of the Radio Times runs

One of Britain’s most celebrate sculptors travels back in time and journeys across the globe to piece together how art began. Once we believed that it all started with the cave paintings of Ice Age Europe, but new discoveries are overturning that idea. Deep inside the caves of France, Spain and Indonesia, Gormley finds beautiful, haunting and surprising works of art. The creator of the Angel of the North asks what these images from millennia ago tell us about who we are.

There’s rather more information about the programme by David Butcher on page 50, which says

Yes, it’s a documentary about prehistoric cave art. How often over the years have we seen an arts presenter in torchlight, sighing about the ineffable power of cave painting?

But this is different. This is Antony Gormley, one of our great artists, who by lucky chance is also a better talker about art than most presenters, making a pilgrimage not just through the French caves that he first visited on his honeymoon (we see a holiday snap) but also venturing further afield to Indonesia and Australia, looking for the first stirrings of human creativity.

“This is a cathedral of joy in living things,” he says in a cave called Les Combarelles. “I think we’ve found a Palaeolithic Picasso,” he jokes in Niaux. And in an extraordinary scene at Pech Merle, with its 28,000-year-old paintings of horses, a local expert demonstrates how they were made, by chewing up charcoal and delicately blow-spitting on the rock.

The ancient cave paintings of northern Spain and southern France are superb, extremely naturalistic depictions of the creatures roaming that part of the Mediterranean during the Old Stone Age 28,000 years ago. Some of them seem to have been deliberately painted on distinctly shaped pieces of rock, so that if you come into the part of the caves where they are they appear to move. When Picasso saw them over a century ago, he was so utterly astonished at their superb quality that he declared ‘We have invented nothing!’

At the turn of the Millennium 18 years ago, Hugh Quarshie, one of the actors in Casualty, presented a programme on the art and artefacts of the Stone Age on New Year’s Eve. One of the speakers he interviewed about them was a director of Horror flicks – I’ve forgotten whom. But he made some very interesting points about the parallels between Palaelithic art and his type of movie. They were both initiatory experiences which you viewed in darkness.

There seems to have been a definite religious/ritual purpose to their production. Most of them are found in chambers deep in the cave systems, which are extremely difficult to reach. To get to one of them you literally have to squeeze through on your stomach. There was very probably an aural component to their painting as well. Quite often the rocks near them have musical properties. Their lithophones which produce musical tones when struck. It therefore seems that some of them were being played while the artists worked producing these amazing pieces of work.

No-one quite knows why these wonderful paintings were made. It’s been suggested that they may have been made to secure success in hunting, or for fertility. Others have suggested that they were produced as part of shamanic rituals, in which the painters attempted to pass through the membrane between this world and that of the spirits. Whatever the reason they were created, they’re superb. I’m not a fan of Gormley’s work, but this looks well worth watching.

Anthropologist, TV presenter and former member of Time Team Alice Roberts also talked about the ancient cave paintings of Europe this week in the last edition of her The Incredible Human Journey, the series in which she traced humanity’s emergence and spread out of Africa tens of thousands of years. This week she talked about some of the very earliest human remains found in Europe, including those of modern Homo Sapiens from around 30-40,000 years ago from a cave in Romania. A forensic artist then reconstructed what one of them may have looked like from one of the skulls found. Roberts and the artist remarked on the person’s absence of any distinct racial characteristics. It was a definite human face, but it was neither Black, White or Asian, although they pointed out that we believe the people at this time had dark, Black skin. But it comes from a time before the development of modern racial characteristics.

They also reconstructed the face of a Neanderthal from about this time. They were stocky, powerfully built people with big noses and strong brow ridges. Although they died out, some of them interbreed with the invading modern humans, so that the DNA of modern people outside Africa contains about 3%-9% Neanderthal genes. The reconstruction didn’t have any hair. Contemplating it Roberts said that although Neanderthal women probably found modern human men very handsome, and that human women obviously found something in Neanderthal males, she wouldn’t have fancied mating with them. Well, each to his or her own taste. Looking at the reconstructed Neanderthal head, it reminded me of nothing so much as that of Beeb TV presenter and former felon, Dom Littlewood.

She also covered the ancient cave paintings, talking to a French artist who worked using the same techniques. He was shown blowing charcoal on to the rock behind his hand trying to create a stenciled handprint, just like those left by the ancient artists. Like the article in the Radio Times, Roberts said that it had to be made using a distinct technique. You couldn’t take it all into your mouth and just spit it out. Instead the artist blew it out in a constant stream of spitting, leaving his hand black with charcoal. It’s quite a time consuming process, and Roberts and the artist said that some works could take as long as week.

The art of the palaeolithic is fascinating and enigmatic. We’re learning more about it and the people who produced it, but so much still remains lost in the mysteries of time.