Thursday, December 5, 2013

Self-Representation in Paleolithic Art

I recently stumbled across an intriguing paper by Professor LeRoy McDermott of UCMO, where he presents a new take on the ancient "Venus" sculptures from the Paleolithic European continent and beyond. Their perplexing distortions of the body led me to consider them as only fertility symbols  - however, McDermott posits that the sculptures are in fact representational depictions of the female sculptor, looking down upon her own figure.
Photo Credit: M Burkitt 'The Old Stone Age'
The above sculpture is a restoration of the Lespugue Venus, a Venus figurine created in the Gravettian culture sometime between 24,000 to 26,000 years ago. It was discovered in a cave in the Pyrenees mountains of France in 1922.

Below, you can see the same sculpture, photographed from the top down, with the head as the viewpoint. This is then compared to a photograph of a 26 year old adult Caucasian female, whom is six months pregnant.
Front View
Side View
Back View

 There are a few curious elements in the above images that make a lot of sense as a representational, rather than symbolic, work. Note the clear notch of the sacrum on the back view - its appearance is only so blunt from this sort of viewpoint. In the side view, the rectus femoris and vastus lateralis appear quite familiar, as does the rhythm of the gastrocnemius. McDermott also informs us that these figurines usually began with a rough shaping of the head, and then continued with refinement throughout the body. The stomach and reproductive organs were to be detailed last, at an advanced stage of pregnancy.

This form of self-representation explains the lack of detail or attention to the head, as well as the feet (hidden by the hips and legs). It also reveals the odd choice of proportion to be a preference for the viewer's perspective of the self. 

I find this theory to be an attractive explanation, but it also begs the question of why? As representational artists, we are concerned with depicting things as faithfully as we see them, just as our ancient ancestors may have concerned themselves with depicting their bodies in a manner that made sense to them. Even in our attempts to describe what we visually see, we can often arrive at such different understandings of what that may mean. 

Click here to read McDermott's paper in full

1 comment:

Adam Davis said...

This is one of the most awesome explanations I've ever heard of for this sculpture. When you study art history in college, this sculpture and the "Venus of Willendorf" are some of the first things you study and they are ALWAYS described as 'symbolic fertility figures', but this explanation makes so much more sense!

Great post!