The Willendorf Venus And Others

The origins of art in the paleolithic era, circa 30,000BC

bobo, Going Postal
The Willendorf Venus

Suerte que mis pechos sean pequeños
              y nos los confundas con montañas – Cervantes

The problem with Art is, of course, that it appears very suddenly in the archaeological record. And furthermore that when it does so, it reveals itself to be mature, perfected and apparently the inheritor of a long and rich tradition. The earliest works of art that we know are neither tentative nor crude, but rather sensitive, skilled and expressive in the extreme. The few objects, the very few that we possess from that dim and almost impossibly remote age bear not unfavourable comparison with much later works that we would consider to be crowning achievements in the field of creative endeavour.

Man as toolmaker – manipulating inanimate objects into items intended to serve a particular purpose – precedes  the existence of modern man. Chimpanzees will select a convenient stick or stone for an immediate purpose, but will discard it after having carried it around for half an hour at most. But around three million years ago at the Oldovai Gorge in Tanzania an apelike creature, who we know today as Homo habilis, began to fashion crude hand axes from chipped and shaped lumps of lava, chert or quartz. The Oldovai hominids also made rudimentary shelters from stones and branches, which implies a home base as a centre of organised activity.

Around 300,000 years ago Homo erectus, who we now recognise as our direct ancestor, made (or more likely captured) fire and fashioned sophisticated stone tools from raw materials which often had to be brought from a considerable distance away. This is important as it implies forethought and the concept of future need: in a word, consciousness. He also used red ochre for some purpose, and carved certain curved lines on an ox rib at Pech de l’Aze in the south of France. Homo erectus may have had the capability of simple speech and, although his brain was appreciably smaller than ours, he was as culturally almost advanced as some ‘primitive’ races still living today. He was right-handed, and he was also a cannibal.

The dessication of the environment which thinned out the tree cover and caused Homo habilis to adopt a more or less upright posture eventually turned to desertification, and drove early man out of Africa and into Europe. There, during the successive waves of glaciation, the process of human evolution led to Neanderthal man who buried his dead in graves lined with red ochre and sometimes strewn with flower petals, and built huts made of mammoth bones and heated from a central hearth.

At some point during the confused beginnings of the most recent advance of the ice, the Wurm Glaciation, Neanderthal man became extinct. The most recent Neanderthal skulls, in truth semi-modern skulls but with heavy and accentuated Neanderthal characteristics, are usually dated to the end of a period of intense cold, the Wurm II period some 50,000 BC. The first fully modern skulls, Homo sapiens sapiens, appear during in Europe during the succeeding Wurm II/III Interstadial era, a time of comparative dry warmth some ten thousand years later. The remains of the first truly modern men in Europe are found in France and date from around 35,000 BC.

The world these first artists found themselves in was a harsh one. The ice sheets covered much of Europe as far south as a line drawn through London and Berlin, and there were pockets of glaciers in the Alpine regions of Europe, and over most of Switzerland where to this day small remnants still lurk in remote valleys, awaiting the geological inevitability that one day their time will come round again. Temperatures across Europe were on average ten degrees lower than today, although they could be much lower the further north you went.

It was still the time of the great beasts: herds of mammoths grazed as far south as Tuscany, sabre toothed tigers and cave lions were only the most dangerous of the indigenous predators, and reindeer and the giant elk grazed everywhere.  From their surviving tools and other remains we know that early man hunted animals for meat and hide, and in season gathered fruit, seeds and nuts; but agriculture of even the most primitive form was unknown.

Life was hard in an environment of uncompromising weather and dangerous wildlife, and lifespans were short. Nevertheless, in this unpromising place and time, the human impulse to create for no other reason than to appreciate beauty was established, grew and flourished.

The first of these earliest products of the uniquely human ability to create art is pictured above: the Willendorf Venus. She was found in 1908 during the excavation of a paleolithic site near the Austrian village who’s name she now bears, and was dated to around 32,000 BC. She is small, only a little over four inches tall, and carved from an oolitic limestone which is not native to the region. She had traveled a bit, had the Venus of Willendorf.

Her natural colour is the honey colour of the stone but she was once coloured blood red with ochre, traces of which still remain. She is plump and rests her hands on her ample bosom, with her head bowed so that we cannot see her features. Her hair appears to be braided and coiled round her head. She is introvert and seems to be the embodiment of female fertility, but she is enigmatic and has little to tell the viewer.

But she does not strike one as an abstraction. Unlike the female ‘goddess’ statues of the Neolithic she seems to be a real woman rather than an abstraction of the feminine. Her pose is natural and not rigid, and although the parts of her body associated with birth and child nurturing are exaggerated to the point of grossness, she seems to be the representation of a living individual.

bobo, Going Postal
The Girl from Brassempouy

The Girl from Brassempouy was carved from mammoth ivory around 28,000 BC and was discovered during one of the first excavations of a paleolithic site in Europe, in 1894. The Grotte du Pape cave system, near the village of Brassempouy in the southwest of France, was actually quite a treasure trove, with upwards of a dozen carved figurines being found amongst a great deal else. It is well worth reading up on if you have the inclination, but for our purposes we will focus on just the single find.

She stares out at us, her face is oval and her chin pointed and her chin and neck join in naturalistic fashion. Only the minimum amount of carving necessary to define her nose and brows was used, but her hair (or headdress, or hood) is detailed intricately and it reached her shoulders. There is a crack down one side of her cheek, due to flaw in the internal structure of the mammoth’s tooth from which she was made. Although the style of the carving is realistic it is worth noting the overall proportions of her head, which do not correspond to any racial group inhabiting the world today.

Like the lady from Willendorf, she too was once coloured with ochre so the coolness of her demeanor may be accidental. In point of fact the antique marble busts of Roman emperors were always painted with a chalk white compound for the skin, crimson circles on their cheeks and crimson on their lips, and black to denote eyelashes and eyebrows. The overall effect would have been quite similar to the character of Aunt Sally in the television series ‘Worzel Gummidge’. The past was a riot of colour which we have now lost, and still has the capacity to surprise.

She is young, the artist made that clear, but nowadays she is fragile. Ivory is susceptible to changes in light, humidity and heat, and she is not on public display. If you wish to make her acquaintance in person you can apply to the Museum of Archaeology at St Germain near Paris where, so I am told, the staff will be happy make reservation for a short viewing in the Salle Piette where she now resides.

bobo, Going Postal
The Lady from Ostrava

In 1953, on the left bank of the Oder in Czecholslovakia, archaeologists were excavating a site consisting of three stone age huts. Each hut had been heated through the long glacial winters by hearths on which coal was burned, and Hut III had a workshop area where iron ore was baked to be used as a red pigment. By the hearth in this hut a mammoth molar was found buried which in turn lay on top of this little statuette.

She herself is carved from haematite, a material which imposes limitations on the carver. Only her torso and thighs are shown, and her breasts and pubis are clearly delineated. The work is rugged, but not crude. Her figure is slim and youthful and her proportions and pose, with the weight on the right leg, are natural. She is only an inch and a half tall, but she has vitality and grace.

It is a setting which, with its coal, fire and iron, calls to mind nothing so much as the Industrial Revolution. But the artist created a work which depicts the equilibrium of the human form with a truthfulness which one otherwise only first encounters of a classical statue of Venus. The statue of the Three Graces, currently in the Louvre, displays the female form in exactly the same attitude as the Lady from Ostrava.

bobo, Going Postal
The Shaman

Dolni Vestonice is an important archaeological site in Moravia in Czechoslovakia. The site was discovered in the 1930s, and excavations have taken place regularly since then. The site seems to have been continuously occupied for 7,000 years during the Upper Paleolithic era and a mass of relics and skeletal remains have been uncovered, all of it of great importance and interest. But again we will focus on just one item. Or, more precisely, three items which combine closely to tell one story.

In 1936 archaeologists working at the site uncovered one of the masterpieces of early carving, a woman’s head carved in ivory.  Only four inches in height, it nevertheless shows a fine structure and a thoughtfulness of expression.  Her long nose has a convincing bump at the tip and her hair seems to be wound up into some form of topknot, although the tip is broken off and missing. The only peculiarity is the crooked line of the brow which affects the whole of the left side of her face, and which draws her mouth up perceptibly on that side, giving her a skeptical expression. A few years later a small bone plaque was found a few feet away. It is only the crudest sketch of a face but it showed exactly the same facial asymmetry, leading excavators to question whether it was a preliminary work for the final article.

In 1949 the skeleton a woman was excavated at the site. She was small, at only 5′ 3″, and elegantly built. She was about forty years of age, which was very old for those days, and considerable trouble had been taken over her burial. She was laid to rest in a prepared hollow in one of the huts in a contracted position, and facing west. Her body had been covered with ochre and further protected by two shoulder-blades from a mammoth, one of which was carved with a network of incised lines. Her stone tools were placed with her and in her left hand the paws, teeth and tail of an arctic fox – the smallest and fleetest of all Arctic predators. Perhaps they called her Vixen.

On further examination of the skull of this woman, it was determined that in early life she had suffered a facial injury which would have had the effect of drawing the left side of her face up in precisely the manner indicated by the two carvings. All three items were found within twenty feet of each other. It is entirely possible that here we have the first example of a portrait of a single known individual.

Be that as it may, this slight elderly woman must have wielded considerable spiritual or temporal power for her tribe to accord her the dignity of such a careful burial. And even today the force of her personality resonates down the millennia: she must have been a formidable lady indeed.

© Bobo 2020

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