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Friday, 27 November 2020

Painting of the Month (95) November 2020: Cave Painting

CAVE ART, generally meaning the paintings and engravings found in caves and shelters dating back to the Ice Age, roughly between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, is generally considered to have a symbolic or religious function, sometimes both. The exact meanings of the images remain unknown, but some experts think they may have been created within the framework of shamanic beliefs and practices. A shaman would have been someone believed to have access to good and evil spirits.

Most cave art consists of paintings made with either red or black pigment made from iron oxide, manganese oxide and charcoal and about 400 are known of in several European countries and also in Indonesia. The majority of the paintings (and some sculptures) depict mostly animals and a few

humans. Sometimes a head or genitalia are shown and also outlines of hands. Birds and fish were rarely depicted.These works were not made by ‘cavemen’ although they are usually found in caves, but by modern humans Homo sapiens, anatomically identical to us today.

Recent studies have been made of the numerous geometric signs, though the specific types vary based on the time period in which the cave was painted and the cave’s location. A remarkable realisation was that a range of 32 different signs repeated themselves over and over across the entire European continent over a period of thirty thousand years! That means that the symbols must have been meaningful to the people who were using them because of the replication. It has also been hypothesised that this use of symbols led to the creation of written languages.

These discoveries have overturned the conventional timeline of humans and art pushing back the ‘first art’ to pre-human times in Europe and suggesting there may have been a continuation that came ‘out of Africa’!

I'm listening to Van Morrison's Into the Mystic. It's a truly magical song and an ever-lasting joy! Listen here.

"It's too late to stop now..." 


Parnassus said...

Hello Bazza, I used to read all the Sotheby's and Christie's catalogues, and sometimes cave paintings were removed from their caves and actually offered for sale. This made me so angry--I thought that if anything on this planet should be left in situ, it was cave paintings.

Sherry Ellis said...

Very interesting. So Homo sapiens were the first to make cave pictures? That must've been a big leap in the brain's evolution.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Evidently, the desire to create art... and music, too... is a primal part of humanity's DNA. I find that to be both fascinating and uplifting. A species capable of creating is a species worth saving.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bazza - wonderfully interesting post ... I've got the British Museum's book on Ice Age art - which I must read ... and also the Beeb's programmes on the history of writing - I didn't watch earlier on - and must try and do so fairly soon. Love this sort of research ...

So interesting to read about - thanks for letting us know. Stay safe - Hilary

bazza said...

Jim: Absolutely! You may be aware of an English artist known as Banksy. He paints murals on properties overnight and is a bit of a mystery man. Suddenly everyone wants to acquire his work so people were tearing walls down and stealing them! His pictures are amusing illustrations really and rather political. Definitely not 'fine art'.

bazza said...

Sherry: It's not really known whether Neanderthals made art but modern humans certainly did in a big way! Certain monkeys have been taught to make 'abstract' pictures but I don't they really know what they're doing.

bazza said...

Susan: Yes, hopefully, when Judgement Day comes we will be found to be worth preserving!

bazza said...

Hilary: I find this a fascinating subject. I read Stephen Pinker's wonderful book The Language Instinct which traces the origin of spoken language but it's easy to imagine the origin of writing as springing from the cave markings.

Hels said...


when I went back to uni to change careers in 1990, I decided to do history and art history. I had no idea which era to study, nor which continent to focus on, but the more I read back then, the more passionate I became about the 17th century.

But lecturing required much more flexibility and availability than just "personal preference", and I extended myself from the 17th century all the way up to the 1920s. Never cave art :)

bazza said...

Hels: I was intended to write about Giotto, often glibly described as 'the first artist' but I thought I would try to go back further, then that thought developed into, "Let's see how far I can go back!"