Art Talk: Contemporary Art of the Paleolithic Era

As I’m sure all of us have experienced, at some point or another, humans have an innate desire and need to create something. Whether it is the grandest painting, a tiny doodle, an invention, an equation or an idea. We are born with these amazing, ambitious brains that are constantly searching for ways to produce things that make our individual hearts sing.

For many of us, these things become “art.”

The earliest examples of humans creating art dates back 82,000 years when people began to create things like tools, pottery and even jewelry. They also began to create figures in painting and sculpture that they believed would help bring good fortune to them in various forms. They created figurines and cave paintings that acted as charms for the people to bring them various blessings such as herds of animals they could hunt and fertility.


Venus of Willendorf


Fertility sculptures made up the majority of sculpture found dating back to the Upper Paleolithic era. The oldest of these, known as the Venus of Hohle Fels, shows a headless, voluptuous female figure  carved from the ivory of a mammoth tusk. It was found in Germany and is believed to have been made 35,000-40,000 years ago. Archeologists and art historians believe that the replacement of the head by a small protrusion of stone means the figure was worn as an amulet.

One of the more well-known fertility sculptures from the time, is the Venus of Willendorf. This small figurine features a featureless woman with large breasts and wide hips; this is essentially a portrait of the ideal female body for reproduction. The sculpture was found in Austria and dates back to between 24,000 and 22,000 BCE.

These sculptures began an obsession among people to use sculpture as a  way to evoke good fortune, as well as to portray idealized images of humans throughout history. Several cultures across the country have created similar fertility sculptures in which chosen features are emphasized as a way to point the blessings toward specific motivations.

Sculptor Daniel Edwards, evokes similar themes in his work. Edwards is known for his sometimes controversial sculptures that depict the faces of popular culture in different contexts. One that can be directly compared to the Venus statues of Prehistory is Edwards'”L.A. Fertility,” a marble statue that depicts a pregnant Kim Kardashian. Not only has Kardashian been held up in our culture as an idyllic figure, Edwards treats her pregnancy as a way of showing this ideal woman as fertile. The sculpture shows Kardashian with large breasts, a protruding belly and wide hips; it is strikingly similar to the Venus of Willendorf.


Another instance of early art-making are the various paintings of animals and hunters that grace Prehistoric caves across Europe. The most widely known of these are the caves at Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in Lascaux, France. The drawings, made from various mineral pigments, show bulls, horses and other animals ranging in detail. Stick-like figures that seem to be humans are shown hunting the animals as well. While the paintings were discovered very recently, they are believed to date as far back as 15,000 BCE. Common interpretations believe the drawings were created both as a blessing and a guide. Some believe the paintings were made as a way to will large herds to pass through and bless the people with food.

Cave paintings in Lascaux, France. 

Another prevailing theory is that the drawings were made so that people could record the anatomy of the various animals they encountered. Special attention is paid to the curve of the horns, the coloring and the movement of the legs. Many animals were painted over rounded edges of the cave, which, it is thought, was meant to portray the roundness and immense size of the animals. These paintings are important because they point to a maturation in human thought — humans were beginning to notice details as well as starting to record their existence.

A contemporary art show at The Hole gallery in New York entitled “Early Man,” attempts to address the reason humans chose to make art in the first place. Various artists, all influenced by Paleolithic art, contributed a variety of pieces for the show that included both painting and sculpture. According to an article about the show by The Huffington Post, the show seeks to return to an era where art was created, whether intentional or not, without the contemporary confines of “art speak” and the various standards and definitions we have created for “Art” over the years. The show features a contemporary version of a fertility statue by David Pappaceno, and  creations of dancing women by Devin Strother that often evoke images from early cave paintings.

The thought that the basic art that allowed for all of the masterpieces we think of today when we think of art, has fallen by the wayside in direct influence is sad in a way. Have we forgotten our roots? Have we constructed such strict standards that we have forgotten about why humans created art in the first place.

Perhaps. But perhaps not.

Many contemporary artists are influenced (if mostly indirectly) by Prehistoric art, if by no other means than the simple, carnal need to record and create.


How do you think Prehistoric art has influenced the evolution of fine art over the years? How do you interpret the human need to create? What are your favorite Prehistoric pieces? Let’s talk.


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