My interest in art history developed in the sweet years of youth. But time has passed and it is regrettable to say that much of all that information has somehow vanished from my memory. Why would I let that happen? We live in such fortunate times, having access to so much information. I decided to read more into it and follow the timeline for an info refresh. I want to share it with you as well. I'm sure we'll find some interesting facts to indulge in.
So, what is art history?
Art history focuses its study on objects created by humans in a visual form, with aesthetic purposes. Art could be classified in different ways, like separating the fine arts from the applied arts. Fine art deals with aesthetic value. It concentrates on the study of drawing, painting, sculpture, literature, ceramics, murals, etc., while the applied art uses a more technical approach. It deals with art commercialised and materialized such as architecture, fashion design, interior design and so on.
The history of art is told like a story. A chronology of art forms belonging to each civilization. As we know, art has been a form of expression since the evolution of mankind. After many years of research, our modern world uncovered different forms of art practiced by our ancestors. Cave art and sculpture being the most common.
So when and where did any form of art first make an appearance?
As to when, it started with the longest era known to humankind, the Paleolithic, or the Stone Age, approximately between 1,000,000 BC and 10,000/8000 BC.
The oldest form of art is believed to be located in India, in the Madhya Pradesh region. The Bhimbetka and Daraki-Chattan series of petroglyphs (290,000-700,000 BC) are the oldest known prehistoric artworks in the world.
Bhimbetka and Daraki-Chattan Cupules, India
The Bhimbetka Rock Shelter has the oldest-known rock art in India. The fascinating discovery of the representational cave paintings dating back to 30,000 BC make a stunning thousands of years old art gallery. These paintings make a striking resemblance with the ones found in Kakadu National Park in Australia and the Lascaux cave paintings found in France.
Bhimbetka Rock Shelters, India
Kakadu National Park, Australia
Lascaux Cave, France
Another astonishing find was a small sculpture, Venus of Tan-Tan, discovered in the year of 1999 by Lutz Fiedler in Tan-Tan, Morocco. The artifact is believed to be the oldest form of human representation in the world, supposedly dating back to 500,000 - 300,000 BC.
Venus of Tan-Tan, Morocco
However, there is a controversy behind Venus of Tan-Tan. It has been interpreted by Robert G. Bednarik (Australian prehistorian and cognitive archaeologist) and he described the object having a general human-like shape and its horizontal indentations were created by carving with stone tools, accentuating the sculpture’s anthropomorphous nature.
Supposedly, a pigment was applied to further highlight the human-like shape. Unfortunately, these findings haven’t been further analyzed, thus Bednarik’s statements haven’t been confirmed or declined. Professor Stanley Ambrose expressed his opinion on the matter, saying that the rock's shape was a result of natural weathering, but I would like to believe the figurine is an artwork created by the hands of our ancestors.
In Africa, the oldest and most certain art form discovered dates from somewhere between 70,000 BC and 40,000 BC, where sculpted seashells have been found, as well as sculpted stones.
In the same period of time, humans practiced hunting and gathering. They lived in caves and as such, the development of cave painting emerged. Using symbolic thinking, the first figurative art forms appeared.
An example of the earliest discoveries was a stone fragment presenting a cross hatching design in the Blombos cave, in South Africa. Another similar discovery is portrayed by a second stone fragment, presenting a drawing realised with an ochre crayon. It is known to be the earliest drawing created by humans in the world, dating back to 73,000 BC.
Crosshatched Stone Fragment, Blombos Cave, South Africa
Stone Fragment Drawing, Blombos Cave, South Africa
Blombos cave makes an extraordinary location when it comes to unveiling the Stone Age’s ancient secrets.
Along with the decorated stone fragment, numerous objects have been revealed. Objects including ochre processing kits, marine shell beads, refined bone, stone tools, engraved bones and a range of terrestrial and marine remains. However, no figurative drawings have been discovered in this location.
Blombos cave may not hold the oldest artworks in the world, but certainly the oldest on the continent of Africa so far.
Another amazing discovery was the Cave of Maltravieso from Spain in 1951. The cave is host to 71 hand stencils, dating back to the Middle Paleolithic (around 64,000 BC). That makes Maltravieso’s hand stencils the oldest known cave paintings in the world. The stencils have been created using a red ochre pigment.
Maltravieso Cave Hand Stencils, Spain
(Image Source: Prehistour.eu)
Moving closer to the late Stone Age, in Germany, we have the Lion-Man of the Hohlenstein Stadel which is considered to be between 35,000 and 40,000 years old.
The Lion-Man is one of the most incredible discoveries humanity has come across. The 31.1 cm tall figurine portrays the figure of a man with the head of a lion, just as its name suggests. It was carved out of mammoth ivory with a flint stone knife. It is the oldest known zoomorphic sculpture in the world.
Loewenmensch/ The Lion-Man of the Hohlenstein Stadel, Germany
Lastly, Further into the Upper Paleolithic, also in Germany, we come across the most famous, oldest Venus, Venus of Hohle Fels. Unlike the previous Venuses discovered, Venus of Hohle Fels is the oldest uncontested example of a depiction of a human being. The only figurine of this nature older than this one is the Lion-Man. The artifact was carved out of mammoth ivory and measures only 60 millimeters in length.
Despite the unconfounded shape of a voluptuous woman, the figure doesn’t present a head. Instead, there is a ring, indicating that the tiny statue could have been worn as a necklace. Anthropologists suggest that such sculptures were not created to depict beauty, but represented "hope for survival and longevity, within well-nourished and reproductively successful communities"
Venus of Hohle Fels, Germany
And with that, the Paleolithic era has been wrapped up. Of course, the list could go on, considering that the Upper Paleolithic brought so many more artworks and more refined, as the newer generations indicated progress in knowledge and the understanding of symbolism.
In Western Europe, the Magdalenian cultures were the later cultures of the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras. They date from around 17,000 to 12,000 years ago. It was the period where artistic manifestations had reached a peak. This was known as the “The Upper Paleolithic Revolution” or “The Creative Explosion”.
Abstract images have been discovered as well as naturalistic images. The cave paintings symbolically represented the activities of the knowledgeable participants. The paintings have been used as a form of teaching and represented an increased need of communication and specialized abilities for the humans of that time.
It is fascinating to look back and see how our culture has evolved over the thousands of years. New discoveries are being made each year, so who knows? Maybe one day even older forms of art will be discovered.
Thank you so much for reading! I hope you have enjoyed discovering or rediscovering this part of Art History and it has been as informative to you as it has been to me.
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