Art Before History Part 1

I’d like to start the discussion of art history from the very beginning. Before there were any historical records, art was being produced.

We begin with art from the Paleolithic Period, the Old Stone Age (ca. 30 000-9 000 BCE). Art from this period was not the earliest man-made objects to be found, but they were the earliest objects that could be confirmed (with knowledge and data we can gather today) as art. Works produced by people from this period are of great variety– they range from necklaces, human and animal forms carved in various materials (ivory, stone, clay, etc.), paintings, engravings, relief sculptures, and much more. During this period, humans went from recognizing men and animals to representing men and animals. This was a major accomplishment.

Let’s start with the first artwork!

Animal Facing Left from Apollo 11 Cave, Namibia

One of the earliest artworks found is a work of charcoal on stone, from 23 000 BCE. It was one of several of such works found during the Apollo 11 Cave excavation in Namibia, Africa. Although the work may appear simple, it was revolutionary. Prior to the Paleolithic Period, humans didn’t care to represent animals or men (this is one of the most major developments of this period). However, during that time, there were countless similar works being created. This type of artwork was common place. So I would like to use this particular work as an example of similar works created during this time.

One of the things that strikes me as most amazing is that although this work was created dozens of thousands of years ago, like artists working in every age (even today in the 21st century) and in every style and medium, the painter had to ask himself these two questions: What will be subject be? How should I represent this subject? This artist chose to represent a horse, most likely a horse or a horse-like animal (bison, horse, mammoth, and ibex were some of the most common animal subjects of the time) and he represented it from a profile view with charcoal. Profile view (representing a figure from its side) was very common at the time because it was the only way for the artist to fully show all aspects of it (the head, the body, all legs, the tail, etc.)

One thing that I find important to note about this work is that during this time period, “variety” and “originality” in subject matter or method of representation were not on the list of concerns for artists. They didn’t fret about their work being unique or one-of-a-kind. In fact, these concerns are relatively modern in the history of art. During the Stone Age, the main concern of the artist was to represent the figure convincingly.

In the next blog, I will discuss another work that is also from the Paleolithic period.

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