“Before we ever painted on a cave wall we painted on ourselves.”
It’s a line I’ve used ever since the book The Painted Body by Michel Thévoz (1984) introduced me to the idea that painting ourselves was the first human art. He states that it is the fundamental human art: “…there is no body but the painted body, and no painting but body painting.”
In my desire to reach back to that initial impulse to paint ourselves, I collect images of cave wall paintings and other ancient art. Cave paintings bring animals to life in naturalistic and stylized imagery that use the outcroppings and shapes of the rock walls, in much the same way body artists use the contours of the human form. Much of this prehistoric art depicts human/animal transformations associated with what scholars think may be the shamanist beliefs of early human cultures.
In The Mind in the Cave (2002), David Lewis-Williams presents a timeline of the development of ancient art and culture. Whereas cave paintings go back 30,000+ years and the earliest “object of art” yet discovered is from 77,000 years ago, there is evidence of pigment processing from much earlier, possibly as far back as 250,000 years ago. That reaches back to the very beginnings of human culture on the plains of Africa, before the modern human race began to spread into the rest of the world. Pigments like those ochre earths are still used as traditional body paints.
When the Paleolithic paintings in the Chauvet Cave were discovered in 1994 they revolutionized our perception of prehistoric art. Before then, cave paintings were dated based on a study of style: the simpler the art the earlier it must be from. Modern scientific dating techniques show that some of the Chauvet paintings are from 32,000 years ago, the earliest pictorial art we’ve ever discovered. Yet they are rendered with subtle shading, employ complex pigment processing, and varied illustrative techniques including using multiple images to depict movement (in almost a cubist fashion). Some have such a developed naturalistic style that they look like they could walk off the cave wall today.
I did this bodypainting called “Chauvet Lions Watching” in 2004, with images from European cave paintings that are 10,000 to 32,000 years old. I could call it my first fine art bodypainting — though I had painted full bodies before this, those were usually on assignments for clients, experiments with technique or imitations of other bodyart I’d seen. I think this was the first time I ever approached a body as a canvas to express and explore a strong concept I was trying to understand, with the specific goal of creating a single photograph that might be seen as a work of art.
The Chauvet Lions are watching from the lower right hand corner and, remarkably, they are the oldest image here.
Check out the related post: Werner Herzog – he likes the lions, too. http://wp.me/p1sRkg-6O 4/22/11
- First Neanderthal cave paintings discovered in Spain (newscientist.com)
- Cave paintings dated back 42,000 years (topalternativenews.com)
- Why Body Painting? – 3A: Origins – Why did we start painting ourselves? Ancient bodypainting kit discovered at Blombos Cave (thestorybehindthefaces.com)
- This Is the Earliest Human Painting Ever (gizmodo.co.uk)