Monday, August 3, 2015


PREHISTORIC ARTPaleolithic Art - 600,000 to 10,000 or 35,000 to 7,000.
Mesolithic (Near East) - 7,000 - 6,000
Mesolithic (Europe) - 7,000 - 4,000
Neolithic (Europe) - 4,000 - 1,5000
Neolithic (Near East) - 6,000 - 3,500
Read this excellent essay about the Venus!

Dina Vainer
Art 103A
Spring 2002
Prof. Mencher
The Venus of Willendorf
The Venus of Willendorf is often interpreted as a fertility figure, with the body of an ideal and supremely attractive woman. I hold the belief that while she is an icon of fertility, the presence of so many similar figures of the same period compounded with the lack of comparable male figures, indicates that The Venus of Willendorf and sculptures of her ilk were considerably more significant to the ancient Paleolithic societies. It is likely that she was representative of some sort of fertility or Earth goddess significant to the Paleolithic religion of the period. The emphasis on such female figures is indicative of a society that valued women more highly than is generally assumed. Such a society, while perhaps not matriarchal, would still center on women as the hubs of creation, and would presumably honor several, whether they be priestesses or simply high in the society’s hierarchy. This theory could provide for a living model as the basis for The Venus, for a culture that honored women would most likely pamper some of them.
The body of The Venus is made from oolitic limestone, presumably carved by the flint tools common to the era. She is roughly pear-shaped, standing about 11 cm tall, with almost no straight lines to break with the soft, sloping curves that are her trademark. Her anatomical features are greatly exaggerated, with great, pendulous breasts, swollen stomach and thighs, and overemphasized genitals. Her head, arms, and feet, however, are greatly de-emphasized, with her arms draped, thin and useless, over her corpulent breasts, and her feet barely hints at the bottom of her legs. The Venus has an abundant abdomen, though one cannot quite tell if she is meant to be pregnant or simply obese, or if the artist even differentiated between the two. Her head is also strangely carved, with loops of coiled hair encircling it completely, from crown to the indent between head and neck, which could presumably be called a chin. The hair is as detailed, however, as the rest of her anatomy, leading me to believe that hair may have been as sexually important to the Paleolithic people as her other, more impressive features. Further down the body of The Venus, there are slight dimples in the pressed in thighs as well as rather flat rump. Such details merit the claim that the sculpture was based on a live person, as do the overemphasized body features. If the obesity of The Venus reflects the ideal body type, then it is possible that a sculptor would have overemphasized her feminine features in the same way that later artists overemphasized the body types of their subjects via huge eyes, long beards, or overdeveloped muscles (see Head of an Akkadian Ruler). Just as later artists made a caricature of sorts out of their models, ignoring some aspects of the body while greatly increasing the size of others, so did the sculptor of The Venus of Willendorf.
These features of the work, the large breasts and genitals, as well as the abundant belly and rear, are obviously iconographically significant. Most art of the ancient world is of a religious aspect, as art for art’s sake was a concept that developed much later. Since The Venus is representative of Paleolithic sculpture, it is to be assumed that she is connected in some way to the religion of the period. When discovered, The Venus was smeared with ochre. Such coloring was symbolic of menstrual blood and was often used for fertility of good luck (631 Wrescher). If, however, we assume that she represents some sort of deeper religious icon, then we can assume that the ochre coloring was for fertility, and that The Venus of Willendorf was representative of a fertility, or possibly Earth Goddess. Such an emphasis on woman reflects back on the society that creates these works. If, indeed, The Venus of Willendorf is a fertility goddess, then the stress on her reproductive organs is warranted and the importance of women as the creators of new life comes into light. Since there are very few, if any, known male figures of similar construction, or any construction at all, of the same period, then one has to assume that the woman as a goddess was a central part of the Paleolithic religion. If this is in fact so, then one has to assume that the women of the society also took a central role, and herein enters the argument that The Venus could have been carved from a model. Since she is supposed to be representative of a fertility goddess, one can assume that there were priestesses of that same goddess which would attempt to attain a state similar to their deity (as various religions afterward would do as well – see the Bacchus Cult) allowing for the obesity evident in The Venus. And if The Venus is supposed to be representative of a goddess, and imbued with the power of that goddess, then her lack of feet and developed arms can be explained by the sculptor not wanting her to walk away from her alter or cause any trouble (
The environmental circumstances that forged The Venus of Willendorf are harsh. With the ice age, late Paleolithic tribes had to forage and move often. Most of their women, accordingly, were probably weakened and thin. The most important part of this culture would be, however, children, for adults would likely die at a young age and needed the fresh blood and fresh legs of children to keep the tribe and culture afloat. The Venus of Willendorf would probably not be representative of most of these women, considering her impressive bulk, but would be an ideal (789-800 Sentman). Any woman that large and robust must have ample energy for the bearing and raising of children. And since children were so important to this society, so were the women that bore them and the flesh necessary for that process. It can be assumed that there was a social hierarchy in the tribes of the Paleolithic era. Whether these tribes were matriarchies or not, some women would still be in positions of power as the mates of well-to-do men or priestesses in their own rights. Accordingly, these women would be the ones who got the most food and pampering, and so, must have successfully born the most children. The more healthy children created, the more important and holy a woman would presumably become. Since the people of this society were fairly primitive, they may have not known how children came to be, and may not have even understood the part that men play in the process. So the large, fertile woman would be an end in herself and would be the model for all the other women as well as a symbol of fertility. This could explain the proliferation of The Venus figures as well as provide models for them.
I believe that The Venus of Willendorf was based on an actual, living model. Such a model would indicate that at least a few women of these societies could attain obesity, which indicates that they must have been high up in the social hierarchy. This theory argues that women were also of a religious significance in this culture, and that The Venus of Willendorf was a representation, based on the body of a priestess or simply an important woman, of fertility and life.

Wrescher, Ernst E. "Red Ochre and Human Evolution: A Case for Discussion," Current Anthropology 21, 1980, pages 631-644
Women in Prehistory; The Venus of Willendorf,,
Sentman, Everette Edgar."The Wonderland of Knowledge – Paleolithic period," Publishers Production, Inc., Lake Bluff, Illinois, pages 789-800

According to the Brittanica,
Cave paintings are thought to date from about 20,000-15,000 BC. Their pigments probably have been preserved by a natural sinter process of rainwater seeping through the limestone rocks to produce saturated bicarbonate. The colours were rubbed across rock walls and ceilings with sharpened solid lumps of the natural earths (yellow, red, and brown ochre). Outlines were drawn with black sticks of wood charcoal. The discovery of mixing dishes suggests that liquid pigment mixed with fat was also used and smeared with the hand. The subtle tonal gradations of colour on animals painted in the Altamira and Lascaux caves appear to have been dabbed in two stages with fur pads, natural variations on the rock surface being exploited to assist in creating effects of volume. Feathers and frayed twigs may have been used in painting manes and tails. These were not composite designs but separate scenes and individual studies that, like graffiti drawings, were added at different times, often one above another, by various artists. Paintings from the Magdalenian period (c. 10,000 BC) exhibit astonishing powers of accurate observation and ability to represent movement. Women, warriors, horses, bison, bulls, boars, and ibex are depicted in scenes of ritual ceremony, battle, and hunting. Among the earliest images are imprinted and stencilled hands. Vigorous meanders, or "macaroni" linear designs, were traced with fingers dipped in liquid pigment.
Lascaux, France, Paleolithic Period, 15,000-13,500 BC
Remember this stuff?  Compare it to the caves at Pech Merle and Cosquer.  Make sure you read in Stokstad how these images were made!

  Historic Era Neolithic Technology Cultures
1125-1200 CE Anasazi
1300-Present  Navajo, Hopi, Zuni,
1300?- Present Kwakiutl, Tlingit, Haida
600,000-7,000 European Sites: Altamira, Lascaux, Tuc Audoubert, La Madeleine, Willendorf

Woman from Willendorf, 
(Venus of Willendorf ), 
Austria. c. 22,000-21,000 BCE.
limestone, painted with ochre. 
Size: 4 3/4 inches 
Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna
Paleolithic Period
Venus of Dolni Vestonice
Molded of clay and bone ash 
size: 4 1/2 inches 
Dolni Vestonice, Czechoslovakia, 
34,000-26,500 BC 
Moravske Museum, Brno Czechoslovakia
Form:  Both of these sculptures are small in scale (size) and made of easily worked with and readily available materials.  Both are economical in their renderings of the human form.  The arms are engaged against the forms most likely to conserve material. Some aspects of the proportions of the forms are changed.  The breasts and hips are very large, while the head and features are de-emphasized.    Possibly, the odd proportions of the Willendorf woman were probably influenced by the original shape of the rock, not solely by the artist.  However, this does not account for the similar stylization (Stokstad refers to this as abstraction) of the Dolni figure.  The sculpture from Willendorf is made out of limestone.  It is a subtractive sculpture (parts were carved awaye) and was originally painted with red ocher while the other was carved or molded (molded sculpture is additive) from the remains of  clay and bone ash found in a fire pit.   (There is another similar figure carved from hematite in Stokstad.) Iconography:  The overemphasis of the figures sexual characteristics, the breasts, stomach, and thighs are those associated with being able to carry and feed children successfully and as such represent the concept of a fertile female.  Therefore these sculptures probably represent an ideal.  (An ideal is a perfect example of a valued quality).  The face, legs and arms are thought to have been downplayed by the artist because these are not necessary to portray the concept of a fertile female.
Context:  We are not sure why these figures were created.  It is safe to assume that they were probably sculpted in a small scale so that they were easy to carry.  If compared to the Kachina figures of the Hopi peoples and one may be able to draw the conclusion that these figures served a similar purpose.  They were fetish figures of some sort designed to influence the world through some sort of sympathetic magic or as a didactic tool. 
The study of these figures has changed over time and so has the naming.  Stokstad refers to these figures as "women" rather than "Venus" figurines because the naming of such figures influences how we interpret them.  (See Stokstad "The Power of Naming.")

Bison with turned head
12,000 BCE
4" reindeer horn
found in La Madeleine (Dordogne, France)
Paleolithic Art
Form:  It is carved out of reindeer horn and is only four inches long.  The artist used hatching to depict details, such as hair and nostrils and the image is in complete profile which is very similar to the conventions of the cave paintings.  Even though it is a three dimensional sculpture it is still a two dimensional image.  It is subtractive sculpture made on the limited space of the horn. Iconography:  Bison's represent virility, food and mans struggle with his own animalistic side.  This could be an object of magic or power that gives the owner an ability of the animal or over the animal.
Context:  Bison's were very important to early man and they are depicted very often.  This item was very small so it is believed that it was carried around, much in the same way we would carry around a rabbit's foot or coin as a good luck fetish. 

15,000 - 12,000 BCE
Altamira, Spain
Paleolithic Art
The Hall of Bulls
Panoramic view of a cave wall 
Lascaux, France, 
early period, 15,000-13,500 BC
Form:  Most images from Altamira and Lascaux depict profile views of the animals done with diagrammatic contour lines.  (Not unlike the form lines used in Kwakiutl art.)  The profile view is the most effective and clear way of depicting the animals.  There is no depth or space created and the scale and sizes of the animals vary widely possibly  because these were not concerns of the artists nor are the images designed to relate to one another.  Iconography:  Bisons could represent a number of things: strength, virility, and or food. The spaces these images were painted in might have been some of the world's first churches or temples.  The caves and the ritualized descent into them may have been iconic of rejoining the earth.  Rising out of the cave might have been symbolic of rebirth.
Context:  These paintings were probably not meant purely as decoration.  The technology used is based on the available resources.   The artists that made these bison either blew the pigments on to the wall or mixed them with animal fat medium as the medium.  They used stones for palettes and made brushes or blowpipes from reeds. 
The images were probable used for some kind of religious or magical  function and most likely as an attempt by early man to control his environment.  By descending into a cave, which in some ways is a sacred womb like space, early humans could paint the bison they were attempting to control.  Possibly using the images as "stand ins" for specific rituals.  The spaces they are painted in were reused over and over again.  The images are layered because they were often painted over by later artists.
Interestingly enough both the sites in Lascaux and Altamira were discovered accidentally.  In the case of Altamira, the Marquis Marcelino de Sautuola was not believed that his discoveries were legitimate and this gave rise to the use of scientific method to legitimize such finds.
The entrance to Lascaux is halfway up the side of a hill. The cave is no more than 250 metres deep, with a drop in level of about thirty metres. 
In prehistoric times a small rocky escarpment marked the entrance, which was later gradually hidden by sediments as a result of erosion.  Section of the entrance at the end of the Palaeolithic Age.
Section of the entrance at the end of the Paleolithic Age.
These deposits accumulated over the millennia to form a scree covered cone which hid the entire entrance.  Section of the entrance at the time of discovery in 1940.
Section of the entrance at the time of discovery in 1940.
Navajo Yeii Spirit, is a depiction of a irit considered by the Navajo to be a go-between between man and the creator.  Yeiis control natural forces in and on the earth, such as day and night, rain, wind, sun, etc.  A very special kind of yeii is the Yei'bi'chai, grandparent spirit or "talking God" who can speak with man, telling him how to live in harmony with all living things by following a few rules of behavior and using only the basic things he needs to survive.  A symbol of the harmony achieved is the "Rainbow Man", a yeii controlling the rainbow, who gives beauty to those in harmony.
The Hand, represents the presence of man, his work, his acheivements, his legacy.  It also represents the direction of the creative spirit through a man, as a vessel for the Creators power. 

Wounded bison attacking a man
c. 15,000-10,000 BC
bison length 43 in. (110 cm)
Lascaux, France 

Cosquer Cave, France c27,000

Cosquer Cave, France c25,000
Make sure you read in Stokstad how these images were made!
 In 1991 divers at Cap Morgiou, France set out to explore a small cave with an entrance 121 feet below the surface. After swimming for nearly 600 feet they found a cavern above sea level. To their amazement they found that the walls were decorated with animal images and human handprints. The explorers, led by their diving instructor Henri Cosquer, had discovered a cave full of prehistoric paintings. According to the Brittanica in 1993,
Cave art in France and Spain received attention again through new techniques in radiocarbon dating and the analysis of the pigments of paintings. It was established that animal figures on the walls of caves, such as those at Altamira, Spain, had not always been painted at one time but could have taken as long as 700 years before completion. New radiocarbon assays at Cosquer, an underwater cave near Marseille, France, dated the drawings at 27,000 years, making it the earliest cave art known.

Make sure you read in Stokstad how these images were made!
Web ArtLex n, pl mediums or me.dia [L, fr. neuter of medius middle--more at mid] (1593) 1 a: something in a middle position b: a middle condition or degree: mean 2: a means of effecting or conveying something: as a (1): a substance regarded as the means of transmission of a force or effect (2): a surrounding or enveloping substance (3): the tenuous material (as gas and dust) in space that exists outside large agglomerations of matter (as stars) b pl usu media (1): a channel or system of communication, information, or entertainment--compare mass medium (2): a publication or broadcast that carries advertising (3): a mode of artistic expression or communication (4): something (as a magnetic disk) on which information may be stored c: go-between, intermediary d pl mediums: an individual held to be a channel of communication between the earthly world and a world of spirits e: material or technical means of artistic expression 3 a: a condition or environment in which something may function or flourish b pl media (1): a nutrient system for the artificial cultivation of cells or organisms and esp. bacteria (2): a fluid or solid in which organic structures are placed (as for preservation or mounting) c: a liquid with which pigment is mixed by a painter usage see media ²medium adj (1711): intermediate in quantity, quality, position, size, or degree  subtractive sculpture  Sculpture formed by the cutting, chiseling, chipping, or scraping away of a material such as wood or stone.
pig.ment n [L pigmentum, fr. pingere to paint--more at paint] (14c) 1: a substance that imparts black or white or a color to other materials; esp: a powdered substance that is mixed with a liquid in which it is relatively insoluble and used esp. to impart color to coating materials (as paints) or to inks, plastics, and rubber 2: a coloring matter in animals and plants esp. in a cell or tissue; also: any of various related colorless substances -- adj ²pig.ment vt (1900): to color with or as if with pigment 
pro.file n [It profilo, fr. profilare to draw in outline, fr. pro- forward (fr. L) + filare to spin, fr. LL--more at file] (ca. 1656) 1: a representation of something in outline; esp: a human head or face represented or seen in a side view 2: an outline seen or represented in sharp relief: contour 3: a side or sectional elevation: as a: a drawing showing a vertical section of the ground b: a vertical section of a soil from the ground surface to the underlying unweathered material 4: a set of data often in graphic form portraying the significant features of something ; esp: a graph representing the extent to which an individual exhibits traits or abilities as determined by tests or ratings 5: a concise biographical sketch 6: degree or level of public exposure syn see outline ²profile vt pro.filed ; (1715) 1: to represent in profile or by a profile: produce (as by drawing, writing, or graphing) a profile of 2: to shape the outline of by passing a cutter around -- n