Black Cat

Going not gentle into that middle age.

Seeing Images

Filed under: I Want to Believe — 13 June 2006 @ 3:30 pm

Jonathan Jones has written an article in the Guardian, Old Masters, discussing a 27,000-year-old cave painting from Angoulême, France. He reports that the “[a]rchaeologists have discovered what they believe to be a 27,000-year-old drawing of a face, which would make it the oldest in history.” He then goes on to compare the drawing to the minimalistic style of a modern Picasso, and to give reasons for the apparent discrepancy between the lifelike accuracy of so many other prehistoric animal drawings and the simple lines that make up this figure.

Why did the first artists draw like Picasso? It has to be because of their attitude to the face, to their own embodiment and that of the people they lived with – it has to be because of how they saw human beings specifically, because this is very different from the way they painted animals.

… The earliest human instinct was not to photograph the face, but to decorate it, to ennoble it.

… The reason the cave painter could draw like Picasso is the same reason Picasso could; because everyone knows what a face looks like. The face is so much part of our consciousness that long before there was writing, it could be simplified to a striking stylised mark.

I find it interesting that four months earlier, in another Guardian article,
Prehistoric Cave Art Discovered, Kim Willsher reports differing views of the findings.

The discovery was made in November but kept secret while the site was sealed and the find examined and verified. [Amateur cave explorer] Mr Jourdy said he also saw a sculpture of a face made from a stalactite, though experts are still verifying this claim, according to the news agency AFP.

… Mr Jourdy insisted the “sculpture” was in the shape of a human face made from calcite that had formed a stalactite.

Michel Bilaud, the governor of Carente department, said: “There are traces of human occupation. There are bones and there are lines on the wall. There is a print of a hand. But for the rest, it’s just marks.”

Humans are wired to try to make sense of patterns. We “see” portentious images in tea leaves, animals in clouds, extraterrestrial faces in the shadows made by mountains on the Moon, images of Jesus Christ in burnt marks on tortillas. Those who want to believe will insist that the images have meaning.

Mr. Jourdy, discoverer of the artifacts in the cave, believes that the markings constitute a stylized image of the human face. Mr. Bilaud, governor of the area, sees no such image in the markings.

Mr. Jones, reporter and admirer of antique art, believes that the marks are precursers of Picasso, and is not at all bothered by the fact that all other cave paintings are very realistic and leave no ambiguity as to the figures they represent. He explains this discrepancy by inventing the intentions of a 27,000-year-old artist.

It is irrelevant that no one today knows the artists’ intentions behind the realistic animals and hand shapes that are painted in many other caves, let alone the intentions of the person who made those simple marks in the cave at Angoulême. We humans speculate freely about the possible meaning of the patterns that we see, and when we have come up with a meaning that “feels right”, we declare that to be the correct meaning, and we defend that interpretation with no allowance for the possibility that what we are proposing is mere speculation.

I am not convinced that our belief in the truth of those meanings constitutes proof of its truth. “I believe, therefore it’s true. I believe whole-heartedly, without a shadow of a doubt, therefore there can be no possibility that it’s false.”

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