The origin of art was certainly the mimicking of nature. The question was how.
Even if it tried to be faithful it was distorted, necessarily. For one thing, the artist’s feelings ran away with him. For another, he had to adapt what he wanted to do to what he could do; that is, he had to draw or carve or paint on something ( a wall, a tree, a horn) and it had to look both understandable or recognizable and appealing.
There were limitations everywhere. His “pen” was a crooked stick of charcoal. His colors, which were only dirt scraped out of the ground, weren’t like the beautiful colors he wanted to imitate. His white would never be as bright as the sparkle of sunlight on the water. He drew the profile of a bison with a black line of charcoal because that made it recognizable, though he knew there was no black line around any bison. He loved the bushy look of the bisons’ black locks but he couldn’t find a way to paint them. He wanted to paint them in such a way that whoever saw his drawn bison would feel the same way he felt about them—that is, how soft and dusty they were. But he couldn’t do that—he didn’t know how.
Why did he want to draw in the first place? Because he felt something. He saw things that made him afraid or curious or happy and he tried to record them, to save them. Originally he drew for himself: his pictures were not always intelligible to other people. But sometimes someone recognized his drawn bison and smiled. The picture was a success!
Or it might be that back in those Neolithic times the bison was half-divine and any picture of it got an instant reaction of awe or fear. Maybe it was used in magic. For that, a simple figure, however crude, would have been good enough. Maybe superstition stood in the way of art’s progress, at least as far as bison were concerned and the artist had to draw other, less emotionally charged subjects. He will anyway have wanted to turn away from convention. Artists always want to make their own discoveries. Each man was different. Some wanted to paint what made them afraid, some what made them love. Some were after a laugh with their drawing; some tried, perhaps with the likeness of a dear relative, to bring him back to life. Some were curious about the look of everything.
The drawing always began in their minds, where the memory of the object was stored. They tried to draw it and, when they had a doubt, went to look at the “real thing”. How was the neck connected to the shoulder really? Was the horn round or elliptical? Just how large were the eyes in fact? (They seemed enormous.) It was very hard to study a live animal because it moved all the time, and you couldn’t get too close. But you could check details on a dead one. You could make complete pictures of dead animals—studies, call them. The trouble with those studies was that they looked dead and, as your intention was to show a live animal, they were good only for reference. You wanted your own bison to look threatening, say, or arrogant.
Until people had seen paintings by other artists, they probably weren’t very critical of them. But in time they began to compare a drawing with what it represented. “Your bison looks like a rabbit,” someone finally said.
“If you know so much about it, then here, take my brush, and paint a better one,” said the offended artist.
People looked for only one thing in the work: how closely it resembled the “real thing”. A bison had little eyes and a big head and a short little nervous tail. It had fine, cloven hooves, and so on. Did the painter show all that and show it right? Few ever criticized HOW he showed it—that seemed to be a technician’s or a specialist’s problem. The average viewer of paintings rarely thought about it. Matters of style, of color, of perspective, of focus, of background surely influenced his judgment of the picture; but his one conscious concern was likeness. Did the bison in the picture look like a real bison?
He was sometimes surprised to see that the artist wanted to talk about other things; that he seemed to be worried more about color combinations and backgrounds and light. He didn’t even want to comment on the bison’s realism. It clearly was of secondary importance to him!
To make him feel better, the viewer said: “I don’t know why you’re unhappy with this painting. To me that is a darned good bison.”
But the painter wasn’t cheered. And later the viewer heard that he had blacked it over with charcoal.
In fact, a mere likeness wasn’t good enough for him. He wasn’t happy until his drawing looked appealing in a way he hadn’t even a name for and the secret of which no one has ever understood. We say “beautiful”.
Books talk about schools and periods; but the history of painting is about the achievements of individuals. Each one did his own thing. Why he did so was a mystery even to himself. Genius does what it must. The what and the how were the great problems of his life; and each man through hard work and long hours discovered some new way to paint a picture. Their aim wasn’t always the same; but if it was great art they painted, looking at it made you reflective. It taught while it delighted.