Palaeolithic Art, Part II

Had these early artists a purely practical aim? Or were they inspired by a true creative impulse? “This conflict” writes Jacquetta Hawkes, “exists only in the mind of the disputants.”

The limitations of palaeolithic art are most apparent in its subject matter. Enough examples have already been quoted to emphasize the familiar fact that the Franco-Cantabrian school was predominantly concerned to make portraits of single animals in a style of heightened realism. Scenes or pictorial compositions were very rare; human beings were seldom portrayed, in painting almost never. In both these things Franco-Cantabrian art contrasts with the East Spanish paintings where men and women were often depicted and scenes of hunting and ceremonial were favourite subjects.

These generalizations must always remain broadly true; yet it so happens that recent discoveries have tended slightly to modify them. In the depths of the pit at Lascaux (discovered in 1940 but hardly published until after the war) was found what has a good claim to be the first narrative picture in the world. Many people are by now familiar with the scene where a man (schematically drawn) is apparently lying dead, while before him a bison stands in a curiously rigid attitude as though about to fall, its ripped intestines hanging down and a broken spear at its side. Even without attempting to bring the neighbouring rhinoceros into the scene, there seems no doubt that this unique picture illustrated some particular event—whether from real life or a camp-fire epic. It told a story; and this was something altogether new.

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