This summer I was enjoying the Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy. It is one of the most important Egyptian art museums in the world. In it, I could see the “Ostracon of the dancer” and read the analysis made by the curators of the museum. There it was indicated that the ostraca were disposable stone slabs that the artists used to practice or make sketches and plans. This is particular for two reasons, the first was the effort made by the artist, because he did not save in details or materials, despite being a painting on an ostracon, making it a preciousness; the other reason was that they argued that the dancer’s position was not the position that complied with the painting canon of the time and therefore was prohibited.
Investigating a bit more about this ostracon I discovered that this type of postures was used in representations of parties in the area of Thebes, so it is not a forbidden position, as the museum suggests, however, it is evident the artistic ability of the creator of the work.
This led me to wonder about artistic skills at other times in our history and what those artists or illustrators wanted or could tell us.
As Miguel Tanco tells us in his article, Hommo industries were born at the moment he was chosen to tell stories using images, “through fire and imagination”.
In this sense, we know from the archaeoacoustic studies carried out by Margarita Díaz Andreu and her colleagues that there is a direct relationship between caves and shelters with rock paintings and their acoustic characteristics. These sites have reverberation and special echoes. Perfect to tell a story or to make a special ritual, using images, lighting, and sound.
Prehistoric art covers a long period of time and space in human history, making it difficult to generalize. Although the best known are those located in the Franco-Cantabrian zone, there are manifestations of rock paintings all over the world. Several have been found in Australia, in India where one of the paintings shows a man being pursued by an animal, in Russia and his camel, in the American continent, and of course in Africa. In fact, there are so many that I did not know that I felt quite overwhelmed. On the other hand, the rock manifestations extend in a long period of time, although the moment of realization of the paintings still cannot be dated actually because the techniques that are available are not 100% reliable.
What objects are represented in prehistoric art? Animals mainly, both in groups and solitary, almost always recognizable; human beings, although less frequently in hunting attitudes, or in sexual attitudes; stencils of hands, artists or other members of the group? schemes and symbols, mainly sexual. However, as Jean Clottes mentions, the images do not represent the landscape, the moon, the sun, the plants, the rivers, only rarely, a line of the horizon. Why?. This absence of representation seems to be as important as the continuous representation of animals.
In any case, what did they want to tell us? what was the object ? were they narrations to maintain the group’s history ? was it part of a magical-religious act? many hypotheses have been made about it, possibly never we will know the answer.
We can not forget the magical characters that have been found in several of the caves, among them: Chauvet’s man-bison; the man-bird of Lascaux; the magician of Les Trois Frères, or the mushroom man of Tassili n’Ajjer. All, a combination between human and some animal, even the last one, that although it is also decorated with mushrooms, the head is of a bee.
Something that can be affirmed is that the technical and artistic capacity of the prehistoric illustrators is undoubted. From the more sophisticated figures such as those found in the Cave of Altamira, Lascaux or Chauvet, to the more schematic ones such as those of the Cueva del Castillo, one can observe the use of a very expressive line, the use of shading, use of the same form of the cave to give three-dimensionality to the figures they represent. The images tend to have movement, both those of animals and the few times they represented humans. Even in places like Chauvet, it seems that the site that was chosen to locate a children book illustration was not trivial, but important for the whole.
It is curious to see how the bison are grouped in the cave of Altamira, and in Chauvet rhinoceroses or lions are grouped, giving the impression of herds in movement or the movement of the same animal.
In Africa, in the figures found in Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria, much more recent than those mentioned above, human figures seem to be dancing while they hunt or perform other activities. They are highly stylized and funny.
Andre Leroi-Gorham established, with Annette Laming-Emperaire, a systematic analysis of cave paintings, analyzing through time and space the location of images, grouping, frequency, gender, position and their relation to symbols and the handprints that accompanied them. He discovered that in almost all of them a precise organization of the decorated space could be established: that there was a pattern in the relations of proximity or distance of the figures, and in their position with respect to the topography of the caves in which they are found. Its conclusion is a symbolic interpretation of the representations of each of the images as binary signs that oppose, alternate and complement each other. For Leroi-Gourhan, these elements were masculine and feminine.
More importantly, Leroi-Gourhan indicates that “the great quality achieved in” the trade “by the architects of the great sanctuaries, allows us to see that the artist could -as it happened in so many societies of” primitive contemporaries “, or in the so-called art tribal- receive compensation for their services or, at least, enjoy the applause or religious approval of their contemporaries. His production had, then, to keep more and more to what was expected of him. If the perspective was left open with the innovation of artistic technique (and in this, the decorated caverns give sufficient faith), such innovation had to abide by the limits prescribed by the social solicitation. “That is to say, we return to the same comment that they make in the Egyptian Museum of Turin on the ballerina’s ostraca,
And I ask myself, are we, as illustrators, also limited by society? Although it may not be the same way it was done in prehistory or ancient Egypt, it is certainly true, for the simple reason that it is a society that consumes our products. It is important? I think so since I firmly believe in all kinds of art as a way of critical thinking in society.