A Very Short History of Art: The Prehistoric to the Ancient

Lscaux Horses
Horses from the Lascaux cave paintings.

I’m at it again, compressing decades, and in this case millennia, of history into a few hundred words. This time I’ve set my sights on the world of European Art, and am starting at the very beginning: with Palaeolithic art and the ancient cave paintings of Lascaux.

I’ve already posted about these under Paintings You Should Know, but suffice it to say no-one now knows what motivated our ancient ancestors, over 17,000 years ago, to work by the light of flickering torches deep underground to paint, with prehistoric brushes and pigments, gigantic images of the animals then plentiful in ice-age Europe. What we do know is that no other animal that we are aware of has ever set out to create visual or symbolic representations of the things they observe in the world around them: the impulse to create art seems to be uniquely human.

Venus of Willendorf
Venus of Willendorf

Of even more ancient origin is the Venus of Willendorf, one of many similar hand-sizedfemale figures carved from limestone during the Palaeolithic era, which began 30,000 years ago. With breasts, buttocks and thighs greatly exaggerated it is perhaps no wonder that the early 20th century discoverers of these carvings associated them with fertility rites, but the truth is that as with the Lascaux paintings we can only guess at the intentions of the original artists.

Taking a dramatic leap forward, we come to the art of ancient Greece (usually dated to between 800 BCE and 146 BCE) and Rome (753BCE to 476CE). Sadly, Greek paintings were apparently most usually applied to wooden boards, and none survive today. Numerous other works do survive though, in a variety of media. Mosaics, for example, were a practical and hard-wearing floor-cover as well as being works of art. The Grecian urns, with their distinctive orange-and-black images which we admire so much today were likewise created with practical, rather than purely decorative, aims in mind. Frescos, made by applying pigment mixed with water directly to wet plaster, could depict religious images but were also used to purely decorative purpose by both the Greeks and the Romans. The technique would remain popular up until the development of oil painting in the Renaissance (the example given here, from the Villa of Livia Drusilla in Rome, is a particularly famous one).

Perhaps best-recognised of all the ancient Greek and Roman art-forms, however, are the great marble statues depicting idealised figures of gods and goddesses, men and women, and the marble carvings such as the Elgin Marbles. Once painted in vivid colours, over time they have returned to a stark and stunning marble white.

Celtic disc brooch 4thC BCE
Celtic disc brooch, 4thC BCE

Sometimes overlooked in art history today is the decorative work, primarily (at least in a form that has survived) metalwork, of the various tribal peoples of northern and central Europe collectively referred to as the Celts. The term ‘Celt’ originates with the Greek ‘Keltoi’, sometimes translated ‘barbarian’, and these tribes seem to have emerged as a distinct people-group shortly after the Ancient Greeks, in around the 6th century BCE. Their cultural influence waxed and waned, reaching a high point around 275BCE, and leaving its mark on language and culture in the more far-flung corners of Europe, such as Scotland and Ireland, even today. Many Celtic groups appear to have adopted the Christian faith relatively early – Ireland, for example, was converted in the 5th and 6th centuries – and the intricate, sinuous patterns distinct to the Celtic style were, for a time, influential in European Christian art. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I said at the beginning, I’m compressing centuries into mere paragraphs, but if you’ve noticed any particularly glaring omissions, let me know!

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