An attitude how to look on Paleolithic art in the 21th century

Venus from Gönnersdorf

A Venus figurine from Gönnerdorf (cast from the Kirchof Collection at the
University of Gottingen; displayed with friendly permission). The Venus figurines from the so called Gönnersdorf – type are stylized late Paleolithic depictions of the female body. They consist of bone, antler or ivory  and even flint. Such “femmes sans tete” ( G. Bosinski) are widespread during the late Magdalenian over Europe. (

In 1863 Lartet and Christy began systematically examining the caves in the Périgord region of France, and found incontrovertible evidence for the existence of Paleolithic mobiliary “art”. The 37-page 1864 paper “Cavernes du Périgord. Objets gravés et sculptés des temps pré-historiques dans l’Europe occidentale” with two lithographed plates and illustrations within the text, describing the results of those researches, is the founding work on Upper Paleolithic “art”. It remained the only joint publication of Lartet and Christy issued before Christy’s premature death at the age of 55. During this formative years of Prehistory, reserchers tended to consider the creations of contemporary “savages” and, naturally, the works of  “cave-men” from the “Age of Reindeer”  as a simple form of decorative craftsmanship.

The aesthetics of Paleolithic “art” for the modern observer since then has very much changed. My personal views are heavily primed by modern / postmodern art theories and by  the  aesthetics of the fragment. Such an aesthetics is one possible attitude against any ideological, religious and structuralistic interpretation.

Paleolithic “art”  always survived only  in fragmentary form. While we are unable to read its original meaning, the fragmentary form allows the freedom of different readings. Since the 19th centuries romanticism, the estimation of  fragmentary forms, questioned the positivistic obsession for fixed and  totalizing  explanations of the visual world. Fragmentary forms became omnipresent in modern western Art since DADA and the Surrealists. But contrary to the 19th century, as Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari insist, we no longer believe in the myth of the existence of fragments that, like pieces of an antique statue, are merely waiting for the last one to be turned up, so that they may all be glued back together to create a unity that is precisely the same as the original unity. We no longer believe in a primordial totality that once existed, or in a final totality that awaits us at some future date.

In the late nineteenth century, the colonization of North and central Africa by France and Belgium as part of Europe’s “Scramble for Africa” aided in the proliferation and knowledge of African “art” in Europe. Starting in the 1870s, thousands of African sculptures arrived in Europe in the aftermath of colonial conquest and exploratory expeditions. They were decontextualized and placed on view in museums such as the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, and its counterparts in cities including Berlin, Munich, Brussels and London. At the time, these objects were treated as artifacts of colonized cultures rather than as artworks, and held so little economic value that they were displayed in pawnshop windows and flea markets.

During the early 1900s, the subversive aesthetics of African sculpture became a powerful influence among European artists who formed an avant-garde in the development of modern art. In France, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and their School of Paris friends blended the highly stylized treatment of the human figure in African sculptures with painting styles derived from the post-Impressionist works of Cézanne and Gauguin.  The resulting pictorial flatness, vivid color palette, and fragmented Cubist shapes helped to define early modernism. At the same time, German Expressionist painters such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the “Brücke” (The Bridge) group, based in Dresden and Berlin, conflated African aesthetics with the emotional intensity of dissonant color tones and figural distortion, to depict the anxieties of modern life, while Paul Klee of the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) in Munich developed transcendent symbolic imagery.

After the early 2oth century the concept of art changed radically.  Things that would have been suggested to be “ugly” or “primitive” before, became suddenly valuable and the status of semiophores. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane noted that modernism in literature ”is the art consequent on the disestablishment of communal reality and conventional notions of causality, on the destruction of traditional notions of the wholeness of the individual character, on the linguistic chaos that ensues when public notions of language have been discredited and when all realities have become subjective fictions.” Such features can easily assigned to other manifestations of art. If we  additionally use an up-to date postcolonial aesthetics in viewing Paleolithic art, we will certainly avoid the mummery of “Paleolithic religion” and the jamboree of “Paleolithic Shamanism”, that still is in the focus of textbooks and popular publications.

It is notable that the best histories about prehistory have been written by historians and not by archaeologists. A fresh look on Paleolithic art should be possible by involving professional art historians into cooperative studies. To my knowledge Max Raphael (1889-1952) was the only and last art historian of distinction who wrote about this topic in the 1940ies.

I am not the only one reflecting the “esthetics in Paleolithic art” theme as I noticed after writing this post:


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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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One Response to An attitude how to look on Paleolithic art in the 21th century

  1. Craig Riedl says:

    I so enjoy this blog. I am reading everthing posted from the very beginning. I have recommended this site to my friends that share a common interest in lithics, art and history.

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