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Pearls from artists* # 494

Shamans, Tiwanaku, Bolivia

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Emile Cartailhac was a man who could admit when he was wrong. This was fortunate, because in 1902 the French prehistorian found himself writing an article for L’Anthropolgie in which he did just that. In “Mea culpa d’un sceptique” he recanted the views he had spent the previous 20 years forcefully and scornfully maintaining: that prehistoric man was incapable of fine artistic expression and that the cave paintings found in Altmira, northern Spain, were forgeries.

The Paleothithic paintings at Altamira, which were produced around 14,000 B.C., were the first examples of prehistoric cave art to be officially discovered. It happened by chance in 1879, when a local landowner and amateur archaeologist was busily brushing away at the floor of the caves, searching for prehistoric tools. His nine-year-old daughter, Maria Sanz de Sautuola – a grave little thing with cropped hair and lace-up booties – was exploring farther on when she suddenly looked up, exclaiming, “Look, Papa, bison!” She was quite right: a veritable herd, subtly colored with black charcoal and ocher, ranged over the ceiling. When her father published the finding in 1880, he was met with ridicule. The experts scoffed at the very idea that prehistoric man – savages really – could have produced sophisticated polychrome paintings. The esteemed Monsieur Cartailhac and the majority of his fellow experts, without troubling to go and see the cave for themselves, dismissed the whole thing as a fraud. Maria’s father died, a broken and dishonored man, in 1888, four years before Cartailhac admitted his error.

After the discovery of many more caves and hundreds of lions, handprints, horses, women, hyenas, and bison, the artistic abilities of prehistoric man are no longer in doubt. It is thought that these caves were painted by shamans trying to charm a steady supply of food for their tribes. Many were painted using the pigment most readily available in the caves at the time: the charred stick remnants of their fires. At its simplest, charcoal is the carbon-rich by-product of organic matter – usually wood – and fire. It is purest and least ashy when oxygen has been restricted during it’s heating.

In The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

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Pearls from artists* # 407

"Survivors," soft pastel on sandpaper, 20" x 26" image, 28 1/2" x 35" framed

“Survivors,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 20″ x 26″ image, 28 1/2″ x 35″ framed

* an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

In the images [the paintings of the Chauvet cave in southern  France] this prehistoric people have bequeathed to us, we get a glimpse of something like a shared humanity, but we also gaze into a stranger part of ourselves, something reaching to the depths.  Since we do not know the context in which the paintings were made, we cannot in good faith chalk them up to some clear pragmatic end.  We are seeing art in its naked state, deprived of any discernible appropriation.  This can trouble our secular sensibilities since it confronts us not just with the mysteries of nature, but more strikingly still with the riddle of the presence of such things as us in the otherwise coherent physical world.  Given the fact that the molecular chemistry that makes life possible is the same throughout the cosmos, would finding works of art on Mars or a remote planet be any more uncanny than finding them here on Earth?      

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action

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Pearls from artists* # 325

"Myth Meets Dream," soft pastel on sandpaper, 47" x 38"

“Myth Meets Dream,” soft pastel on sandpaper, 47″ x 38″

*an ongoing series of quotations – mostly from artists, to artists – that offers wisdom, inspiration, and advice for the sometimes lonely road we are on.

Homo sapiens is the animal that means something, or that desperately wants to mean something.  Undoubtedly our thirst for meaning has a lot to do with our petrifying awareness of death, itself a side effect of the imagination, and one that makes our unique position as much of a curse as it is a gift.

As the prime fruit of the imagination, art is the incontrovertible sign of humanity’s presence on earth.  But what constitutes the human itself?  The prehistoric paintings at Chauvet confront us with a dimension of ourselves that, though familiar in ways, remains in many respects unknown and may ultimately be unknowable.  Human consciousness has access to a powerful otherworld, the place of dreams and myth, poetry and lunacy.  [This is]… the “imaginal,” the name Henry Corbin gave to the intermediate realm, central to the inscrutable mind of God.  As a concrete manifestation of this imaginal realm in the public sphere, art calls us back to the source as a matter of course.      

J.F. Martel in Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice:  A Treatise, Critique, and Call to Action 

Comments are welcome!

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