Before History (part II)

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The oldest humanity known, which defines our entire race, inhabited the innumerable grottos of the high Dordogne, near the rivers full of fish and flowing through reddish rocks and forests of a region once thrown into upheaval by volcanoes. That was the central hearth; but colonies swarmed the whole length of the banks of the Lot, of the Garonne, of the Ariège, and even to the two slopes of the Pyrenees and the Cévennes. The earth was beginning to tremble less from the subterranean forces. Thickly growing green trees filled with their healthy roots the peat bogs that hid the great skeletons of the last chaotic monsters. The hardening of the crust of the earth, the rains and the winds that were regularized by the woods, the seasons with their increasingly regular rhythm, were introducing into nature a more apparent harmony. A suppler and more logical species, less submerged in primitive matter, had appeared little by little. If the cold waters, where the mammoth, the rhinoceros, and the lion of the caves came to drink, still harbored the hippopotamus, there were great numbers of horses, oxen, bison, wild goats, and aurochs living in the woods. The reindeer, the friend of the ice which descended from the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the Cévennes to the edge of the plains, lived there in numerous herds. Man had emerged from the beast in an overwhelming silence. He appeared about as he is to-day, with straight legs, short arms, a straight forehead, receding jaw, and a round and voluminous skull. By the action of the mind he is to introduce that harmony which was beginning to reign around him, into an imagined world which, little by little, would become his veritable reality and his reason for action.

The primitive evolution of his conception of art is, as we may naturally understand, extremely obscure. At such a distance everything seems on the same plane, and the divisions of time we establish are doubtless illusory. The paleolithic period ended with the quaternary age, at least twelve thousand years before us, and the art of the troglodytes, at that distant epoch, had already attained the summit of its curve. The development of a civilization is slow in proportion as it is primitive. The first steps are those that are the most uncertain. The millions of flaked axes found in the caverns and in the beds of rivers, the few thousands of designs engraved on bone or on reindeer horn, the carved hafts and the frescoes discovered on the walls of the grottos, evidently represent the production of a very long series of centuries. The variations of the images preserved cannot be explained only by the differences of individual temperaments. The art of the troglodytes is not made up of obscure gropings. It develops with a logic and an increasing intelligence about which we can only guess, and of which we can trace the great lines, but which we shall doubtless never be able to follow step by step.

What is sure is that the paleolithic artist belonged to a civilization that was already very old, one which sought to establish, through interpreting the aspects of the surroundings in which it was destined to live, the very law of these surroundings. Now no civilization, however advanced, has any other incentive or any other purpose. The reindeer hunter is not only the least limited of primitives, he is the first civilized man. He possessed art and fire.

In any case, the farther we descend with the geological strata into the civilizations of the caverns, the more it reveals itself as an organism coherent in its extent—from the Central Plateau to the Pyrenees—and coherent in its depth through its century-old traditions, its already ritualized customs, and its power of evolution in submission to the common law of strong, human societies. From layer to layer its set of tools improves, and in its art, starting from the humblest industry and culminating in the moving frescoes of the grottos of Altamira, follows the logical incline that proceeds from the ingenuous imitation of the object to its conventional interpretation. First comes sculpture, the object represented through all its profiles, having a kind of second real existence; then the bas-relief, which sinks and effaces itself until it becomes engraving; finally the great pictorial convention, the object projected on a wall. [Thus it is that the Venus of Willendorff, the most ancient human form in sculpture that we know, is probably several decades of centuries earlier, despite its admirable character, than the works of Vézère and of Altamira.]

This suffices for the rejection of the customary comparisons. The reindeer hunter is not a contemporary primitive, polar or equatorial; still less is he a child. The works that he has left us are superior to the greater part of the production of the Inoits, to all those of the Australians, and especially to those of children. The present-day primitive has not attained a stage so advanced, in his mental evolution. As to the child, he does nothing lasting; it is on sand or on scraps of paper that he traces his first lines, by chance, between other games. He has neither the will nor the patience nor, above all, the deep need that must exist before he can imprint on one hard substance with another hard substance the image he has in his mind. James Sully [James Sully, Studies in Childhood] has very well shown this; the child adheres to an almost exclusively symbolic representation of nature, to a stammering series of ideographic signs which he changes at each new attempt; he has no care either for the relationships of the forms or for their proportions, or for the character of the object which he represents crudely, without studying it, without even casting a glance at it if it is within range of his eye. It is probable that he draws only from a spirit of imitation, because he has seen people draw or because he has seen pictures and knows that the thing is possible. If he were not deformed by the abuse of conventional language which takes place around him, he would model before he painted.

Among the reindeer hunters, it is quite rare to find an image of entirely infantile character. In fact, such an image must be the work of a bad imitator who has seen an artist of his tribe carving or engraving. Or else, as in the south of Spain, it belongs to a decadent school, later than the great period, of which Altamira is doubtless the highest manifestation. It then presents, like all decadences, a double character of puerility quite comparable to that of the stammering attempts of the negroes of South Africa, and of artistic refinement, where the ideographic scheme is visibly pursued. The real childhood of humanity has left us nothing, because it was incapable, like the childhood of a man, of continuity in effort. The art of the troglodytes of Périgord is not this impossible art of human childhood, but the necessary art of human youth, the first synthesis which the world, naively interrogated, imposes on the sensibility of a man, and which he gives back to the community. It is the synthetic intuition of the beginnings of the mind, which rejoins, across a hundred centuries of analysis, the generalizations of the most heroic geniuses, in the most civilized ages. Does not natural philosophy confirm the greater part of the presentiments of the mythological cosmogonies?
Where should he find the elements of this first synthesis if not in his own life? Now the life of the reindeer hunter is hunting and fishing. He characterizes it by his whole art—sculpture, bas-relief, engraving, and fresco. Everywhere we find wild animals and fish. From these, which are associated with all his earthly actions, he draws that profound love for animal form which makes his work resemble natural sculptures—bone-structures twisted by the play of muscles, beautiful skeletons sculptured by the atavistic powers of adaptation to function. All day long he sees these animals living, peaceful or hunted, grazing or fleeing; he sees the panting of their flanks, their jaws opening or shutting, their hair matted with blood or sweat, their skins wrinkled like trees or mossy like rocks. At evening, in his cavern, he skins the dead animals, he sees the bones appear under the torn flesh, the tendons shining on the hard surfaces; he studies the beautiful smooth vaults of the cavities and the heads of joints, the arch of the ribs, of the vertebrae, the round levers of the limbs, the thick armament of the pelvis and of the shoulder blades, the jaws sown with teeth. His hand, which works in ivory and horn, is familiarized by touch with skeletons, sharp ridges, rough curves, silent and sustained planes; and it is the joy of his hand to feel the same projections and the same surfaces born of its own work. The artist, by great flakes, carves the handles of daggers, chisels the polished ivory into the forms of beasts, the mammoth with its four feet together, the reindeer, the wild goat, and skinned or living heads. Sometimes he even tries to rediscover in his material the forms of the woman he loves, of the female troglodyte whose haunches are broad, whose belly is covered with hair and broken down with maternity, whose warm flesh welcomes the fulfillment of his desire or lulls his fatigue.

Later, with the more rapid process of engraving, the field of exploration widens. The whole of the glacial fauna invades art. The mammoth, the cave bear, the bison, horse, aurochs, and especially the reindeer—the reindeer in repose or walking slowly, its head to the ground to crop the grass; the reindeer galloping, its nostrils to the wind, its horns on its back, fleeing before the hunter; sometimes the hunter himself, quite naked, hairy, armed with a spear and creeping toward the animal. Nothing surpasses the direct force of expression of some of these engravings. The line is drawn with a single stroke and bites deeply into the horn. The artist is often so sure of himself that he does not even join his lines, but merely indicates the direction of the principal ones which portray the attitude and mark the character. We see a horse's head made up simply of nostrils and jaws; the delicate legs of a reindeer with sharp hoofs, its horns spreading like seaweed or like great butterflies, sharp of breast and thin in the rump; hairy mammoths, on their massive feet, with vast curving spines, long trunk, small skull, and sharp little eyes; bison with their mountainous backs, their formidable neck and hard hocks; fighting beasts, running beasts, irresistible masses, wild flights under the branches all the violent life of the hunter is evoked by these strong images, with their rude frame of rivers, great cool woods, grottos, dry days, and the cold scintillation of the night.

Never was a human society' so thoroughly a part of its surroundings as the tribes of reindeer hunters. Hunting and fishing are at once the means and the purpose of life, and the rude existence is pursued even in the evening, in the cavern which forms part of the crust of the earth, and from which it was necessary to dislodge the lion and the bear. The tales of the hunters, the questions of the children, the work of the artists, the workmen in stone and in wood, the women, all tell the story of the forest and the water, from the skins and the furs stretched on the ground, from the implements of bone and ivory, the vegetable fibers, the beds of dry leaves, and the fagots of dead branches to the stalactites of the vault from which moisture drops. On winter evenings, the evenings of fires and legends, the dying or rekindling lights sketch fleeting apparitions on the shadowy background. They are the dead beasts who return, the beasts to be killed who defy the hunter, those of whose meat the tribe has eaten so much, of whose bones it has wrought so much that they become protecting divinities for the tribe. From that time it was thought proper to set up their image in the most distant and dark corners of the cavern, whence their power would be increased by obscurity and mystery. [Salomon Reinach, L’Art et la Magie] Fresco appears, broad synthetic paintings, ocherish, black, sulphurous, almost terrifying to behold in their shadows and through their unfathomable antiquity—reindeer and bison, horses and mammoths, sometimes composite monsters, men with the heads of animals. Sometimes, as at Altamira, we find all the beasts in a disordered troupe and, amid them, admirable figures that only a great artist could create, through definite, epitomized, purposeful drawing, through subtle modeling that undulates like watered silk, and through skillful transitions; the life of it is violent, the character is prodigious.

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