The First Artist

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!

Visitors in the Lascaux cave, France

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?

Bison in the Altamira cave, Spain (c. 18,000 years old)

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.


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16 Responses to The First Artist

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100swallows,

    Another thoughtful and enjoyable piece.

    I’m running very late this morning and wasn’t going to respond, until I got to the last word: delight. As I recall that was what Aristotle decided was the most important reason for art. Though that theory is very old I think it still could be the reason for much art-making, that of these artists as well as the most contemporary artist.

    I wonder what Aristotle would have thought of these paintings? It really would be fascinating to know how people from another time viewed such works as this.

  2. erikatakacs says:

    Beautifully written, Swallows. In this post the artist outshines the art historian. An interesting approach to what art is through cave artists’ masterpieces. The Altamira and Lascaux artists must have been the equivalent of Leonardo and Michelangelo of their time.

  3. 100swallows says:

    Ken: Thanks. I know Plato but not Aristotle on this and I’ll check him out now. I keep thinking that we have to try to free ourselves from our present-day notion of the “artist”, which is recent as history goes. Our artist is not like those of classical times or Renaissance times, or even of two hundred years ago (though he is still a Romantic basically). The Altamira paintings are just too far back for us to even guess what the “public” got out of those bisons (if they were allowed to see them). One thing sure, they weren’t the first animals that artist drew and they show tricks and skill that he achieved through long dedication to his craft. He wouldn’t have gotten such results without delight.

  4. 100swallows says:

    Erika: Thanks a lot. I wonder whether, as I told Ken, I didn’t make the historian’s error here by imagining that old Altamira spook as a modern artist with a modern artist’s mentality. Of course there is no other way: we can only compare the unknown to the known. Still. See my comment to Todd in the last post about the probable Neolithic mind.

  5. Ken Januski says:

    Hi 100swallows,

    I’m afraid I may have sent you off on a wild goose chase. I was sure that Aristotle had written about delight as being one of the main purposes of art. But my online research today couldn’t find any proof of that. He does seem to say that we ‘delight’ in imitation but not that delight is the purpose of art. More that it is just a main part of our reaction to good art. My guess is that I misunderstood this when I first read it many years ago and have just never questioned that misunderstanding until today.

    But still I think that ‘delight’ is a good word for both the artist and the appreciator of art. You’re of course right that there’s a great danger in attributing motives to whoever created these drawings. They probably saw things in a vastly different way than we do, maybe so vast that we can’t even think of the right vocabulary to use to describe it. And yet we see evidence of things that look like what we know as refined artistic accomplishment today: the dynamic movement, the sense of volume, the use of the surface of the walls themselves to artistic purpose.

    All that makes it hard not to think that there’s not some similarities between the motivations of this artist and that of modern artists. When I saw ‘delighted’ at the end of your post it reminded me of Aristotle. So maybe ‘delight’ was the common link: from today, back to Aristotle 2,000 years ago, and finally back this artist 18,000 or so years ago.

    We’ll probably never know. But it is very interesting to think about and I think your story of how it might have happened helps readers to do just that in a new and fresh way.

    On another matter I had to laugh at the line about ‘your bison looks like a rabbit.’ In graduate school in painting I brought in a newly finished abstract painting for a class critique. I was waiting for great reactions. Instead one of the first students to speak told me the surface ‘looked like Naugahyde!’ What I thought was a beautiful surface to my painting looked like imitation leather to her! It would have been hard to find a more cutting criticism! We artists have always suffered, whether painting bison or abstractions………

  6. wrjones says:

    Engaging, thought provoking reading – again.
    Nicely written.

  7. kimiam says:

    Beautiful! Thank you for the stories, swallows.

  8. Chris says:

    Lots to think about here. For instance how would a Marxist Art Historian go about analiyising the caveman paintings, there was perhaps not much recorded history going on except survival and the survival of the fittest at that!
    Perhaps the images on caves are to do with that, Who knowes what they were thinking when they painted the image also another thought, the drawing of images made us completly different from other life that was around and the language may have been part of the drawing if you see what I mean! the Artist may have been communicating!

  9. 100swallows says:

    Chris: Yes–I too had the idea that pictures were an early form of writing–but primitive stick figures like the American Indians used, not these great Altamira paintings. There is too much work in these, too much concern with shape and color and a graceful line. The mere concept “bison” could have been indicated with just a few scratches. The Marxist theories apply only to HISTORICAL man, don’t they?

  10. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Bill: I hope the thought provoked wasn’t too upsetting.

  11. 100swallows says:

    Hi Kimiam: Welcome back.

  12. 100swallows says:

    Ken: I don’t mind a goose chase like that one. Every time I hear “delight” I remember Robert Frost’s description of a poem: “It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” (“It is the same as for love”.) Of course, what is art’s peculiar delight? There are delights and delights. I wrote a post once about theories of beauty:

    Anyway, you are right: there are qualities of those cave paintings that just have to be what we imagine they are.

    I don’t know what Naugahyde is but the paintings you display on your blog have a very personal style, which is rare in abstract work. You are everywhere present, as the artist should be. No accidental pattern on leather could ever pass as art.

  13. What is interesting I think is when Art of Art sake began. Is anything before that Art?

    I enjoyed reading through all this, it is a facinating post.

    Sculptors go back 100s of thousands of years before these, hence my claim that Sculpture is the premier “Art” form. I did a post on it in Febuary last year.

  14. 100swallows says:

    Thanks,Robert: I wouldn’t doubt that sculpture is older but of course paintings don’t keep so well. Not even classical Greek paintings have survived. So we will never know how far back they go. I’m off to see your February post.

  15. ivdanu says:

    I’m not sure about the beginning, swallows (that “mimicking reality thing”) but I’m sure with you, entirely! at the end: art is made by individuals, just as Gombrich said it: there is no art, only artists…

    and we all (and each) do our thing, genius or not…

    Interesting as always, g!

  16. 100swallows says:

    Danu: I never liked my first sentence. The “mimic” was there to squirm away from “imitation”; but it actually got me in deeper. (Next I thought of “monkey”, which was funny in the context of those first humans, but I didn’t want to be funny.) That the Altamira bison doesn’t look more like a real bison is not a shortcoming, is it? It is in fact its virtue. The artist didn’t want it to look exactly like a bison: it is not “realistic”, it is an abstraction. And besides other conscious distortions it is laid out according to
    a priori graphic canons that are the same as those inside us. The distortions are in fact embellishments, tale-telling, signs of amazement, etc., not failed copying.

    But I left the sentence go because I thought that, in a wide sense, it was true: the artist did copy. This is a bison, after all, not a rabbit. The artist had observed bisons and decided what bison-ness was to him: the great head, the bushy black locks, the fine cloven hooves, the short, nervous tail, the evil black eye; then he went to his drawing stone to scratch out an image that satisfied him graphically while also transmitting his feeling about the animal. While he worked it was the image of the “real” bison that he referred to (and not only the way it looked but also the way it acted—hence the “mimic”). In that sense he was imitating nature.
    (The creation may not have come in that order, of course, as you know well. Maybe one day while drawing with a stick in the sand he made a line that looked to him just like the curve of the bison’s back; and the challenge to do the head just as evocatively, and the rest of the animal, made him go on with the drawing.)

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