Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Prehistoric Art




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PREHISTORIC ART

Paleolithic 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


Sculptural Items: Prehistory and the Fetish
Professors tend to teach the idea that art history is a linear, chronological progression.  I have a different theory about teaching art history that we can learn from living and historical cultures, for instance the Navajo and the people of the Pacific Northwest coast of the Americas, we can actually figure out some things about prehistoric culture and artifacts.  We do have a living written record of what the Navajo and the people of the Pacific Northwest coast of the Americas, but we don’t have this about prehistoric “stone age” cultures.  No written explanation up gives us a framework that we can use and we can apply the prehistoric art. 
During the 1700 and 1800’s most Native Americans living on the American Continent still did not use technologies such as machines and smelting metals.  This level of technology closely approximates what Paleolithic and Neolithic humans living in Europe had.   Since we know so much about the Native Americans we can assume the two may have developed some similar cultural aspects and use this information to interpret prehistoric art and artifacts.  I am not suggesting in any way that Native Americans are somehow "primitive."  More on this later.
Prehistory is divided up into several different periods and geographic locations.  This is kind of a problem when you're studying it another classes and art historians have different time periods.  Although these are before the common era.  Let's define the names. 
 
PREHISTORIC ART
Paleolithic 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 - 1,500
Neolithic (Near East) - 6,000 - 3,500
Pa·leo·lith·ic \"p?-l?-?-'li-thik, esp Brit "pa-\ adj [ISV] (1865) : of or relating to the earliest period of the Stone Age characterized by rough or chipped stone implements
The word, “prehistoric” just means before the historic era (before we started recording history).  The term paleolithic means paleo (paleo is Latin for old) and lithos or lithic means stone in Latin. Therefore the combination of the two words, Paleolithic translates as old Stone Age. The Old Stone Age dates vary widely. The range of dates for the Old Stone are sometimes 600,000 to 10,000 or 35,000 to 7000 depending on who you're studying with and what geographic region you're looking at. 
Me·so·lith·ic \"me-z?-'li-thik\ adj [ISV] (1866) : of, relating to, or being a transitional period of the Stone Age between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic
They range of dates from 600,000 to 7000 BCE of the Mesolithic era is different depending on where you study it and what region of the globe. In the Near East (Iran and Mesopotamia) the  is from 7000-6000 and the in Europe it goes from 7000-4000. 
neo·lith·ic \"n?-?-'li-thik\ adj (1865)
1 cap: of or relating to the latest period of the Stone Age characterized by polished stone implements 
2 : belonging to an earlier age and now outmoded
The word, Neo is like the character’s name from the movie the Matrix, “neo” means “new” and that's the name of the New Stone Age in Europe. goes from about 4000 BCE to about 1500 BCE and the Neolithic era in the Near East (Modern day Turkey, Iraq and Iran) starts a little bit earlier at 6000 BCE.  Neolithic means that they have Stone Age technology they don’t use metal tools they use stone and wood.  Textiles and clothing are made from wool, grass, hemp and straw.  Just keep that in mind when you're studying that this doesn't mean that they were stupid.  It doesn't mean that they were unintelligent.  It doesn't mean that they wouldn't have been able to use the tools that we have or were the stereotypical caveman we see in Geico commercials. 
Native Americans from the 18th and 19th century were sophisticated and rich societies that had many of the same things we have.  They had laws and rules.  They had moral codes and complex religious practices.  They had organized communities in which labor was divided and people had specific roles. They were aware of their history and religion and communicated this through art and oral story telling.  The same is probably true of prehistoric man.
At first Europeans who invaded the Americas had a supremacist tendency to think that Native Americans were somehow “primitive” and “uncivilized” because they had a different culture and did not use machines and for the most part did not use metals.  (Metals were found at the Anasazi and some sites from the Pacific Northwest Coast). 
So the next thing is to take a look at the items that are left behind.  We have some paintings , tools, and small figurines made from clay and stone.  The problem being that anything wood or leather would have deteriorated and just disappeared.  So, what we have left are the stone items, and even some things that were fired (baked in a fire to harden).
This sculpture titled Woman from Willendorf is often of misnamed as the Venus of Willendorf  (Willendorf is a place in Europe) is a European Stone Age piece of work now housed in the natural resources Museum in Vienna.   It's only about 4 inches four and three-quarter inches tall and it was coated with some ocher oxide minerals (a reddish orange powdery kind of substance.) 
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
  bass relief and haute relief
(low relief and high relief)
"sculpture in the round"
 
I have a heading at the top this lecture as Prehistory and Fetish because I think this thing was probably possibly a fetish kind of figure meaning that light people necessarily focused on it for religious purposes or sexual purposes.  Maybe as a sort of fetish that would be used to direct some kind of spiritual energy what I'm suggesting that this could've been a fertility figure but the name Venus is probably wrong because Venus is the goddess of love not necessarily the goddess of fertility.   She could almost be the Greek goddess Demeter or something like that.  If you want to use the Greek mythological term to this is a small thing and if we look closely at it.  We'll see that across the top of the figure will start with a formal analysis the hair is actually looks kind of like a knit cap. There's just a little hole that could be a mouth hole.   If we move down the figure you see that there are arms that are engaged with the bodies that are carved and the hand and arms are draped across the breasts.  The breasts and stomach and the genitals are probably and exaggeration.  And the arms and legs are deemphasized.  The feet are broken off it's made out of limestone and it’s painted.  We refer to the process of making this thing is a subtractive sculptural process, which means you carve away stuff.  Her arms are engaged across the body probably so that they would get broken off because it hard to carve arms that would be extended separate from the body. The feet were broken off because they did extend too far. 
Interpreting these exaggerations of features and the de-emphasis of others from an iconographic or symbolic point of view we can extrapolate about what we know about 18th and 19th century Native American Cultures.
The art we looked at from the Navajo, Anasazi Pacific Northwest cultures usually tells a story and also depicts things that are important in terms of the storytelling.   Art can also be something to transform or transport someone, like the Bukwus mask from the Kwakawakwakh winter dance festival can transform one of the hamatasa dancers.  This is probably an item that was used to tell the story or he could use at for didactic (educational) purposes.  It probably represents desirable characteristics in a woman.  She is large, well fed, healthy and can bear children.  This may be part of the reason why this was created: that it's a fertility figure and that this woman would have been able to have babies and maintain baby because she had enough excess body weight. 
When I was going to school  I thought that this is the only one that was ever found but there are other Venuses that were found throughout Europe. We have on the left-hand side the Venus of the only from Dolni Vestonice and that's in Czechoslovakia.   I think it's kind of interesting because I was taught that Africa was the cradle of civilization yet we have these objects that we found in Europe.  Both of them are of heavy women both of them are probably used for similar purposes.  They are probably fetishistic symbols but they could just be a plaything for children: they could just in the doll. 
 

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
subtractive vs additive

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
Aside from the fact that it's so similar visually to the Willendorf figure is that it's made out of different materials.  The Dolni Vestonice figure is made from molded clay and bone ash. My suspicion is that Clay and bone ash were combined in a fire pit or maybe it was molded and fired in a fire pit.  It's also very possible that they found a hard semisoft material as a byproduct of the ash and clay found in the bottom of a fire pit and carved it.  So in this instance it could've been additive meaning that it could have been molded out of the semisoft clay and carbon ash and then fired again.  That's why it's so well preserved or could've been made using the subtractive process. 
Let's get back to comparing and contrasting these “Venuses” with the Kachina doll from the Hopi culture.  The kachina was used by the Hopi to instruct or teach children about the gods and goddesses that they would be seeing in a performance or a ritual.  It was not worshipped.  The kachina like the Venus is small and therefore transportable.   It's only about may be 6 inches to a foot long and the same thing with the Venus.  It's reasonable to extrapolate from what we know of the kachina that the Venus figures served a similar function.  We don't know.  We'll never know until we get a time machine so that's the biggest drag about our history.  Sometimes you just don't know for certain and never will. 

Kachina Palhik’ mama 
(Water Drinking Girl)
c 1920 wood pt. Yarn front view
SW United States, Hopi Culture

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

Bison from La Madeleine
15,000 – 10,000 BCE 
4" long reindeer horn

Front

Side
Probably Haida, Possibly Kwakiutl
Knife handle?
19th Century, ivory, pearl, shell, wood,
Ht 4 1/8’’ width 1 5/8’’
On the left-hand side we have another piece of prehistoric art.  This bison which is only about 4 inches long and in a way it's also very similar to this Kwakiutl knife handle that we found earlier this bison From La Madeleine, France is very similar in design to the way that the Haida knife handle was carved.  It started probably as just a small chunk of bone that they decided to preserve as much of the bone as possible and not carve away too much of it.  The shape of the bone may have suggested to the artist the outline of a bison.  The artist would have been aware that any delicate extensions like legs could be easily broken off.   It's an interesting idea that the materials and the shape of the materials suggested the form to the artist.  However, we don't really know what the function was.  It may have just been a work of art for the sake of beauty or a religious fetish
fe·tish also  fe·tich \'fe-tish also 'f?-\ n [F & Pg; F fétiche, fr. Pg feitiço, fr. feitiço artificial, false, fr. L facticius factitious] (1613)
1 a : an object (as a small stone carving of an animal) believed to have magical power to protect or aid its owner ; broadly: a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence b : an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion
prepossession c : an object or bodily part whose real or fantasied presence is psychologically necessary for sexual gratification and that is an object of fixation to the extent that it may interfere with complete sexual expression
2 : a rite or cult of fetish worshipers
3
fixation
It also could be a fetishistic item in a way for instance think of kids to put posters the celebrities in their locker on their wall and it's almost like they have little altar to that celebrity and by owning in effigy or a picture of that celebrity icon they have some sort of connection to that icon.  Have you ever taken a lock of hair from someone? Perhaps a mother preserves a lock of hair from her baby. The hair is symbol but it is also like holding a little piece of that person.  If you have a representation of something, for instance a bison, it could be a representation of something that was important to them and by holding onto it.  They might've been able to feel that they have some kind of control over real bison so those are some of the reasons why small sculptures from the Paleolithic era might've been made. I think that I am it's interesting to take a look at the motivations from the cultures that we know a lot more about who share similar technology and apply what we know about those cultures to the prehistoric eras. 
The next era is the Paleolithic period.  The dates range from 600,000 to 10,000 (some scholars believe it's 35,000 to 7000).   The first cave they were to look at is him Lascaux in France but I think it's important also discuss some other cave paintings arena be looking at a place called Altamira. 
Paleolithic Art - 600,000 to 10,000 or 35,000 to 7,000

The Hall of Bulls Panoramic view of a cave wall
Lascaux, France, Paleolithic Period, 15,000-13,500 BC

Altamira: 
In 1879, The Marquis Marcelino de Sautuola first discovered the cave paintings while walking with his daughter.
Lascaux 1940

In 1870’s in Altamira Spain, a noble Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola discovered some paintings on a wall.   His daughter Maria is credited with calling out, “toro toro!” Maria discovered the paintings on the wall mainly because she was short enough to see them first.  When the nobleman attempted to present his findings with the claim that they were made during the Paleolithic period, the scientists of the day didn’t believe him and claimed that they were either recent paintings or fakes.  Later on these paintings were proven real because of other caves that were discovered and in most of these caves there were mineral deposits over the paintings.  These deposits looked a like a varnish and were made of the same minerals that formed stalactites and stalagmites.  Scientists and archeologists were able to prove that the glaze of these minerals would have taken thousands of years to form on top of the paintings. Like the noble’s daughter Maria at Altamira, it certainly is an Alice in Wonderland story in how a couple unsuspecting kids found the Paleolithic Hall of the Bulls in Lascaux. 
Lascaux was discovered in the 1940’s when a couple of kids chasing after their dog fell in a hole.  The Hall of the Bulls a significant is a prehistoric picture gallery that shows horses, bulls, and other animals painted over the course of hundreds years and in an almost haphazard and overlapping manner.  I think first we need to do is look at how is painted and address the formal concerns of how these things actually look.   If we do a close analysis of how they look visually then maybe we can make discover meaning by making connections to other works of art we’ve looked at.
There's no overall cohesive composition planned in terms of the paintings themselves.  It seems a rather haphazard and also doesn't seem as if there is meant to be the illusion of space or depth.  The picture plane was not initially planned and most likely these paintings were overlapped over several hundreds of years.  It was probably a place where people would come back to and keep ritually and repetitively painting and drawing these animals.   There are prehistoric horses also bison and other animals that might be considered useful for food. 


space
composition
picture plane
Almost all the animals were depicted in profile views and the reason for that probably is because it’s easier to paint things in profile.  It's more identifiable. Modern day artists know that faces in profile are easier to draw then a face in a frontal view.  The technique and materials used to paint them shows well observed identifiable animals and even a tradition and complex understanding of what materials to use as paint (the medium). 
It seems like initially what the cave painters created an outline and then they would use colors to fill in and provide a little bit of shading and to show some of the musculature of the animals.  The pigments that they used were most likely charcoal, manganese, ochres, and iron oxides.  Those pigments are basically naturally occurring metals or were charcoal you can get from fire pit.   They would probably mix these pigments (colors) with water (also called a vehicle) and it would make a watercolor paint or they might also add as the vehicle or medium a animal fat which would make it stick and is essentially making a sort of oil painting. 

Why in profile? What function does contour serve?
Colors/Pigments
-charcoal
-manganese
-ochres
-ferrous oxides
-vehicle or medium

Bisons
c. 15,000-12,000 BC
bison length 77 in. (195 cm)
Altamira, Spain 
There isn't really much attention paid to light, shadow there's not light source there's no, what we call chiaroscuro or shading across the figures.  We have a simplified, stylized and diagrammatic portrayal of the animal itself.  We are not really sure why these animals are painted or why they were painted in a cave or if they were painted other places but we have some guesses that are based in a contextual analysis of the environment and what we know about other similar cultures. 
Paleolithic cave paintings like Lascaux were sealed for centuries until some kind of seismic shift reopened them.  These caves with consistent temperature and very little environmental fluctuations were time capsules that not only preserved the paintings but animal bones and some clay artifacts. 
Lascaux was partially uncovered as you can see in 1940 it was just a small opening. In the Paleolithic era it was an open entrance that probably was a long hallway that led down into the main hall.  The opening was gradually covered over by sediment and by erosion and essentially the cave itself was sealed.  Caves like this are rare but many of them were found in France probably because of the geology of the region.  The unique environment of the caves have a temperature that is very consistent and low humidity.  I don't think you can go into Lascaux I anymore because if you do your breath carries humidity and fosters the growth of fungus and mold.  Fungus and humidity can eat away or deteriorate the paint. 
 


Lascaux, France, Paleolithic Period, 15,000-13,500 BC
The entrance to Lascaux is halfway up the side of a hill. The cave is no more than 250 meters deep, with a drop in level of about thirty meters. 
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.


 
 



These two photographs show what the entrance looked like and the scale of what it looked like as well.  The cave is a very long structure and has several rooms. Probably the most important rooms is the Hall of the Bulls but we’ll also be looking inside one of the smaller chambers at a painting of the Bird Headed Man with the Bison
The almost random and overlapping way in which the animals were painted indicates that the cave was returned to again and again and paintings were added over hundreds or thousands of years.  Perhaps the main subject of animals is caused by the fact that humans relied on these animals for survival.  We do not know if they were worshipping the animals or doings some sort of voodoo like sympathetic magic or if they were a kind of textbook or possibly even just something like a prehistoric form of graffiti.  Perhaps prehistoric peoples wanted to have a sacred space and wanted to decorate it with important stories like the walls of churches paintings or the walls of kivas.  It's reasonable to assume that these caves were sacred places because of how often they were returned to.  We need to look at the iconography or subject matter in order to come up with more reasonable guesses as to why these paintings were made.  Something that might help is to compare these wall paintings to the art of the Anasazi and Kwakawakwakh peoples. 


Remember this stuff?
Navajo Yeii Spirit, is a depiction of a spirit 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 achievements, his legacy.  It also represents the direction of the creative spirit through a man, as a vessel for the Creators power. 

 
The Yeii spirits and we looked at from the Anasazi and Navajo were spirits that went back and forth between the spiritual world and the physical world and they also had some sort of influence.  There are depictions of hands in a lot of paintings in most cultures and hands represented human presence.  “I have my hand on it.” And “I've got my finger on it.” Are the kind of clichés that applies to this as well.  So we look at these paintings they probably are representations of things that either were historical stories or things that they hoped would happen. 
The depiction of what can be interpreted as a wounded bison attacking a man maybe something else entirely.  However some evidence for this is if you look closer at the picture you see that the bison has its guts pouring.  Those are his intestines coming out of the bottom and then we see this man laying on the ground he has sort of a bird head on him.  It could be that's how they drew heads and but we also what looks a bit like a chicken on a stick.  Then there are several arrows around it also looks like he has an erection or a penis or he could have a sheath on the end of his penis. 

Wounded bison attacking a man
c. 15,000-10,000 BC
bison length 43 in. (110 cm)
Lascaux, France 
It is possible that we look at other cultures.  For instance, in the culture of the Australian aborigines and in Papua New Guinea they do wear ornaments like this to make their genitals look larger and that makes them look tougher.  The bird on the stick could be a representation of a shaman’s rattle or it could be some sort of magical stick that gives him the power of the bird similar to a pahos stick from the Navajo culture.  We also see scattered around the bison and the bird headed man are arrow like forms.  These “arrows” that could be representations of spears or something else.  However, we don't know what the conventions of visual illusion were at this point in time.  We have no way of telling whether or not the bison and bird man were painted at the same time or even if the artist intended them to relate to one another.  However, we know that in the Anasazi kiva painting seems to indicate that this would make sense. 

Cosquer Cave, France c25,000
The next cave we’re going to look at is kind of interesting cave because it shows the human hand.  This cave at Cosquer Cave, France dates from around 25,000 BCE.  It was found a by some scuba divers who were going caving in sort of a form of underground climbing and exploration called spelunking.  The explorers dove under the water into subterranean water filled caves.  At one point they surfaced into an air filled caves and then they found these two spray-painted hands on the walls.  Some of the hands are actually missing fingers. 
We think that they might've made these hands by first getting a mouthful of paint, perhaps charcoal mixed with water and or saliva.  Then the artist would simply hold a hand up against the wall taking a reed tube and through the straw like tube, almost like a spitball, spraying the paint around the hand.  This would leave a kind of airbrushed outline.  However, that doesn't explain why the hands are missing fingers. 

Cosquer Cave, France c25,000


Some possible explanations for why the hands are missing fingers could be closely related to things like for instance the Yakusa that we know about from Japan when someone screws up they had to take a finger also offering a part of your body or making a sacrifice.  For instance in the Mayan culture they actually would give some of their blood as a sacrifice to the gods of Xibulba (the underworld).  Mayan nobles would injure themselves and then burn the blood by piercing their tongues and genitals.  There's also another possible explanation that it's very easy to lose fingers when you're trying to fight a wild animal and when you're killing animals and at a time when they didn't have caves, but when they didn't have weapons.  They might've actually lost fingers in battles with animals were with each other.  Maybe they just had fists made and they were blowing the paint around the mouth but it occurs so often that it must have significance. 
If you look closely at these to this comparison of the cave painting from Lascaux and we look at the painting from the Anasazi culture and their couple of things that you see that they have in common.  First of all their animals and the animals are animals that would naturally occurring in their environment.  They also at times hold staffs or spears.  There are bird images associated with people.  There are people that have regalia on or costume that indicate power. 
Possibly these two cultures were not so far removed from each other in terms of their motivations and their desires. I think that all human beings pretty much are driven by very similar things and I think it's very important to acknowledge that we've learned about earlier cultures that we know from the historic era for instance the Navajo, Kwakawakwakh, Haida, and Hopi cultures might help us to decipher at least some of the possible reasons why these cave paintings existed and how they came about it also explains why the paintings were so diagrammatic because they might've been used to clearly communicate ideas
 

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.")
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 (http://witcombe.sbc.edu/willendorf/willendorfdiscovery.html).
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.
 


Bibliography:
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, http://witcombe.sbc.edu/willendorf/willendorfdiscovery.html,
Sentman, Everette Edgar."The Wonderland of Knowledge – Paleolithic period," Publishers Production, Inc., Lake Bluff, Illinois, pages 789-800


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. 

Bison
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
France
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.
 
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
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.
Remember this stuff?  Compare it to the caves at Pech Merle and Cosquer.  Make sure you read in Stokstad how these images were made!
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!

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

 
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me.di.um 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.
http://www.cartage.org.lb/en/themes/Reference/dictionary/artdictionary/s/SubtractiveSculpture.html
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 -- pig.men.tary 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 ; pro.fil.ing (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 -- pro.fil.er n