Sun, Jun 11, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Artistic interest in the face is as old as humanity

By Jonathan Jones  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

No one is ever going to put a name to the face. Its owner lived before writing, agriculture or towns existed, before there were states that kept records and long before a Greek man named Herodotus decided to write something called "history." The only reason we can be sure the people who painted in caves during the Ice Age were as human as we are -- that is, they used their brains in the same way we do -- is that they made art. No other animal makes art. And now the earliest art has a human face -- literally.

The eye is a bold horizontal slash that connects to a downward diagonal apparently signifying a nose; below is a thinner line suggesting a mouth. These features are drawn in black on a face-shaped rocky mass in a cave near Angouleme in western France; discovered in February, the image has only now been made public after scientific testing by French archaeologists that has apparently convinced them of its authenticity and age -- they claim the drawings in it were done 27,000 years ago, which makes the Vilhonneur grotto one of the oldest sites of rock art in the world, predated only by Chauvet in the Ardeche (32,410 years old) and some of the paintings at Cosquer in Bouches-du-Rhone (28,370 years old).

This face was made by human beings whose lives were more animal-like than we can imagine, hunting and being hunted in a world of woolly mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers and the other animals who have long seemed to be the main characters in cave art. And yet the portrait shows they recognized the animal that was different, that could look back at you in a special way and mirror you.

So familiar were these people with the emotional significance of the human face that they didn't need to fill in every detail as they did when they painted animals. It is, of course, ironic that an ancient image discovered in France so uncannily resembles the Parisian modernism of the 1920s -- one visitor to the cave has said it reminded him of Modigliani; to me it resembles the way Picasso and Braque notated facial details in their synthetic cubist paintings; you might also think of Brancusi. Is this a bit fishy? Presumably not, because the bones and use of charcoal in the cave means its contents can be carbon-dated.

Why did the first artists draw like Picasso? It has to be because of their attitude to the face, to their own embodiment and that of the people they lived with -- it has to be because of how they saw human beings specifically, because this is very different from the way they painted animals.

Stone Age artists could paint with a verisimilitude that takes your breath away; the horse panel in the Chauvet cave, older than this drawing, is covered with acutely observed heads of aurochs (extinct relatives of cattle) and horses whose tufty manes are painted with a clarity Da Vinci would have admired. Why is the human face so much harder to decipher, so stylized?

Look at the other portraits on these pages, all made in prehistory or at history's dawn and you start to guess why. The earliest human instinct was not to photograph the face, but to decorate it, to ennoble it.

I stood at the top of a staircase in the British Museum, in London, staring into a case, making contact -- I suddenly felt -- with a person who died nearly 10,000 years ago. The head from Jericho is both a portrait and an actual human head. After this person died, an artist took the skull, placed sea shells in its eye sockets and built up a new face on it in lime plaster; other examples of this art have hair and moustaches painted on. The British Museum skull is disconcerting because it challenges all my preconceptions about what art is, what a portrait is.

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