Why Body Painting? — 3: Origins — Touching Ancient Sources

"Chauvet Lions Watching"

by Christopher Agostino

At the core of my approach to bodypainting is my continuing exploration into its traditional sources and cultural functions. Just as a painter on canvas studies the masterpieces of the past to find his own way forward, I study the images and significance of traditional bodyart as a foundation for my work. Searching for an understanding of how and why we paint ourselves leads back to the origins of our humanity and our most ancient art. Whenever I paint someone I am aware of my small place in this vast tradition, one more human seeking to understand how our art can transform us. Although bodypainting is ephemeral, its legacy is timeless.

The Transformation Lecture - click here

This is a primal part of the story I’ve told myself to keep myself painting, that “before we ever painted a cave wall, we painted ourselves…” — my slogan. Going back 30 years when I was first trying to convince people that facepainting could be an art and not just something that clowns did at kid’s parties this was  an important part of my argument.

You search for validation when you are working in a fringe art form and I continue to get jazzed seeing moments like the one in the PBS Nova episode “Becoming Human” where, just as they are describing the final evolutionary shift that made us the humans we are today they are showing a re-enacted image of an ancient human painting themselves. video.pbs.org/video/2098138008…  Or the book How Art Made the World: A Journey to the Origins of Human Creativity by Nigel Spivey, which makes the case that it is our ability to conceive, record and understand symbols (through language and art) that lifted us above the animal state—”we are the symbolic species”—and he also points to our own skin as the original canvas for these social symbols.

Our skin is the physical edge of who we are, the place where we touch the world, and so, as we first gained self-awareness, that spark of consciousness that makes us human, we marked our new awareness onto our skin to tell the world who we are.  And that is a fine answer to the question “Why Body Painting?”

In The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams  presents a timeline of the development of ancient art and culture. Cave paintings go back about 32,000 years, but art is older than that. The image here of the etched ochre rock from Blombos Cave from 77,000 years ago is considered the “earliest art object” yet discovered, and  there is evidence of ochre colored earths being processed to produce pigment from much earlier. Pigments derived from ochre are still used as traditional body paints. It’s discovery radically reorganized anthropologists’ understanding of the origins of humanity, and the place in our collective history of our ancient  ancestors at Blombos Cave is a truly remarkable story, as depicted in the PBS “Becoming Human” series. See also the links below for more information, including the incredible recent discovery of what might be the earliest facepainting kit ever.

The bodypainting at the top uses imagery from European cave paintings that are 10,000 to 32,000 years old, and I painted it several years ago. Ancient sources, modern inspiration for this bodypainter.

30,000 year old cave painting from the Chauvet Cave

The most inspirational art exhibit I have seen in many years was while sitting in a movie theater this past May watching Werner Hertzog’s 3D film of the Chauvet Cave in France, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Seeing Hertzog’s film, I experienced art that is as great as anything I have ever seen in a museum, both in the technical quality of the painting (as Picasso said upon seeing similar cave paintings: “we have learned nothing!”) and in the depth of response it requires from the viewer. Through Hertzog’s fantastic use of 3D to bring the physical shapes of the painted cave walls to life, and dramatic flickering “torch-light” effects to recreate the experience of the original audience for these paintings, I could imagine myself there and understand how, at our origins, art was a driving transformational force.

Learn more at my Body Painting Page http://thestorybehindthefaces.com/body-painting/

One comment on “Why Body Painting? — 3: Origins — Touching Ancient Sources

  1. I love the book and DVD “How Art made the World” and The Power of Art. I just read an article stating that the horses painted in these Cave paintings did have spots like leopards. They have traced the DNA and discovered they did coexist with the artists.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *