Friday, 20 May 2016

Jungian archaeology and the Palaeolithic Venus: part four

Morph between an Altamira Cave bull and one
drawn by Pablo Picasso, John Hooker
(public domain).

If I had known I was going to use this graphic
more than just once, I might have done a
better job in creating it!

"Picasso and Altamira

We are all familiar with Picasso’s (1881-1973) phrase, after a visit to the Altamira Cave where he admired the rupestral drawings: “after Altamira, everything is decadence.” By saying that, Picasso granted an absolute originality and an artistic essentiality, never to be repeated, to the Palaeolithic men who painted those caves in a very distant time (18,500 – 16,500 b.p.). In a certain way, this phrase fits together with his own artistic agenda, interested in breaking with the pictorial classicism – despite his enormous respect for the masters. This will lead him to “cubism”, one of the movements with greatest impact in western art and one of the engines of the so called “modernist rupture”." Paulo Pereira

VIII. In the Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I wish that I had known of J. D. Thomas' paper while I was writing my series The Palaeolithic artist. Thomas says:
"While it is clear the Venuses are symbols of something, what they are symbols of we will never know: unlike stone tools, symbolism doesn’t preserve very well in the ground, or in the back of the cave, or anywhere else for that matter. Produced by minds as cognitively sophisticated as our own, the Venus figurines are no more interpretativly available to us than Les Demoiselles d’Avignon would be to a Paleolithic person who stumbled across it."
Jung, in Spirit in Man, Art, And Literature: On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry.(Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 15), says:
"Art by its very nature is not science, and science by its very nature is not art; both these spheres of the mind have something in reserve that is peculiar to them and can be explained only in its own terms. Hence when we speak of the relation of psychology to art, we shall treat only of that aspect of art which can be submitted to psychological scrutiny without violating its nature. Whatever the psychologist has to say about art will be confined to the process of artistic creation and has nothing to do with its innermost essence. He can no more explain this than the intellect can describe or even understand the nature of feeling. Indeed, art and science would not exist as separate entities at all if the fundamental difference between them had not long since forced itself on the mind. The fact that artistic, scientific, and religious propensities still slumber peacefully together in the small child, or that with primitives the beginnings of art, science, and religion coalesce in the undifferentiated chaos of the magical mentality, or that no trace of “mind” can be found in the natural instincts of animals— all this does nothing to prove the existence of a unifying principle which alone would justify a reduction of the one to the other. For if we go so far back into the history of the mind that the distinctions between its various fields of activity become altogether invisible, we do not reach an underlying principle of their unity, but merely an earlier, undifferentiated state in which no separate activities yet exist."
Jung's lamentations are about the limitations of understanding art at a level that has not yet been reached by archaeology. Archaeology requires solid evidence and art is only ever discussed with regards to its interpretive meaning of the product: the actual process of artistic creation is completely invisible to archaeology. We can see evidence of this in the way that artistic creations are said, by archaeologists, to be the property of everyone, even though this is usually applied only in nationalistic terms. Artists in the classical period sometimes signed their work; they followed available markets and patrons; they were happy to export their work to wherever it might be purchased. The intentions of ancient artists are regarded as nothing in archaeology, their thoughts are silenced and they have less status than any member of the the public. But is not that archaeologists hate artists, it is that, for the most part, they cannot perceive them at all. Aesthetics is non-material and to a materialist is less than worthless. Of course there are a minority of exceptions: art historian/archaeologists and archaeologists of a more postmodern outlook. Modernism sank into scientism.

In my series on the Palaeolithic artist, I emphasized the experiential: my experiences as an artist and my experiences exploring a cave. But I also dealt with the experiences of other artists and made quite a bit of use of Picasso's statement "After Altamira, all is decadence". There are those who think this phrase apocryphal because he never signed the visitor book at Altamira. This sort of criterion is included in the criticisms within Karl Popper's work: The Poverty of Historicism. Just imagine what it would feel like if everything that you had ever done that had left no written record was denied to have happened by everyone. Yet, what we have done in the past has shaped our present. We can see from my morph, above, that Picasso was familiar with with the Altamira Cave art. We also know that he owned reproductions of Palaeolithic Venus's and that they influenced his work.

The Brothel of Avignon (Le Bordel d’Avignon)
Retitled, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon
(Las chicas de Avignon)
Of all the many thousands of images of women that Thomas could have chosen as an an example in the quote above he chose this one by Picasso. That choice virtually proves the existence of the collective unconscious because it, and the artist who painted it bridges the gap between the Palaeolithic and the modern in art. A Palaeolithic artist would have understood it at once. The combination of different angles of view; the very aspect that brought about cubism, is also revealed with the morph I did where Picasso has changed the angles of parts of the original drawing in his interpretation. In the Altamira Cave, the artists took advantage of swellings of the rock face on which they painted their images to to produce an impression of movement of the figures as one passed them. Only through the medium of morphing can we see Picasso's thought process: it was an experiential process and the morph reveals the underlying movement in the artist's consciousness. But that is not all:

A boar at Altamira

It had to be a boar didn't it? Look at the dark lines
that express shadow, volume and movement against
their absence at the back of the boar's hindquarters.

I have used that trick, too, in my own paintings. So
did Cezanne, so did...
You can see the similarities in the use of lines in Picasso's painting and in the Altamira boar: their intermittent use to show volume and movement and the tapering which further emphasizes movement and graduated shadow. Compare, for example, the line defining the central woman's right breast with the line at the base of the boar's rump. This ability, most recognized in modern art, but which can also be seen, although in smaller detail and subtly, where it is entirely subservient to realism in works by Rembrandt, has created scepticism in many people over the years that these Palaeolithic paintings were ancient at all. Modern analysis and dating methods have confirmed their great antiquity, sometimes dating them even earlier than was previously assumed. So who other than Piccaso could have said "After Altamira, all is decadence". There is even more:

Natural light near the entrance of Moose Mountain Cave

The jagged appearance and fracture lines can be compared
to the same motifs in Picasso's painting.As limestone is
sedimentary, and an ancient seabed, it can fracture along
its strata as well as due to other forces. One such force is
conveniently shown in the screen shot here where, on the left,
a slab has fallen.
In the experience of caves, jagged and fractured rock is often strongly felt. I noticed it in the Moose Mountain Ice Caves having gone far deeper into them than most people have and far further than is possible today because ice has blocked access to the deeper levels. Although the Altamira Cave is of a different sort of rock, the fractures, strata and fallen rock can also be experienced there as this photograph of the Altamira Cave reveals. Incidentally, a geologist friend to whom I was describing my passage through a narrow chimney in the Moose Mountain Cave, commented that no one could even drag him into such a place. He was keenly aware of the ever-changing nature of such caves where rockfalls can block some passages and open others. Geologists, of course, see time greatly speeded up in their studies. Picasso's experiences in more than one cave has left its mark in works partially inspired by cave art. That most often, it is African masks that are cited as his inspiration is probably because such masks were in the present and people just cannot comprehend that the Palaeolithic artists were "modern artists" par excellence, in the  way that profoundly affected Picasso.

All of the images and their captions are taken from my series The Palaeolithic artist. The same themes are woven in and out throughout the series and are best revealed by a complete reading, but parts 117, 18, 19, and 27 will give you the most pertinent parts.

I will wrap this series up on Tuesday (I am taking Canada's Victoria Day off). Have an artistic weekend.

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