The great arrogance of the present is to forget the intelligence of the past.
I was going through a recent copy of Art News admiring some of the work that's current and noticing the great range of materials artists can work with these days: computer graphics, lasers, and a great array of colors and media. Some of the pieces are simply low in quality and craftsmanship, displaying a juvenile lack of imagination. But there are others which push at the limits of their materials and hoist up one's own imagination as one views them. But on one page is a portrait, a simple drawing, charcoal on paper, by the 15th Century artist Francesco Bonsigniori. It got me to thinking about how art has developed over the years and how much the past can influence the present. But some things never change: imagination, creativity, artistry, observation, articulation and the love and necessity of doing it.
A few years ago I became interested in the ancient cave paintings while I was working on a story about prehistoric people. Those paintings are mostly of animals. They were painted deep in the caves lit only by torchlight, using the simplest of materials. The cave artists had some primitive colors obtained by grinding up rock. The also used the bulges and folding of the cave walls to define the muscles and limbs of the animals they were drawing.
Some of the depictions are of standing animals, some running, some in herds, with hunting scenes and some that could be attacks. Stories are being told in pictures. Many of the drawings are crude and not well done, but there are quite a few that are excellent. Much has been written about those cave paintings but there is one thing about them that, in my opinion, is the most remarkable of all and I haven't read any accounts of it anywhere, so maybe this is the first.
Back in the early 80"s when I first began to study art I took a life drawing class with Gregory D'Lessio, who was an excellent teacher. He would arrange exercises for us designed to improve our observation and expression. Some of the poses the model took were long, 25 minutes or more. But others were short, one minute or less. During those one couldn't do any detailed drawing but tried to get the general position and attitude of the model. Those are called gesture drawings. Then once or twice a week he would have the model pose for one minute while we did no drawing but only observed the pose. Then the model would break the pose and we would have to draw what we had seen. Those were called memory gesture drawings. After resting for a minute the model would take the pose again, so we could see see how we had done, and then go on to the next one. Those were very difficult exercises to do. Very difficult.
When I wasn't in class I would sometimes sit on the steps of a building, watch the people passing by and try to draw them as I had seen them, trying to get the position, the form and movement of the person, trying to remember what I had seen.
Many of those prehistoric caves are very deep, small, difficult to get to and there is no sunlight. There are no animals running back and forth inside those caves. And that means all the figures and scenes drawn by those prehistoric artists deep in the cave had to be done from memory.
And that is amazing. They were learning how to draw in those ancient times just the way I was but without all the benefits of the 20th Century. How well did they do it? See for yourself.
Paleolithic Cave Paintings
DB - The Vagabond
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