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2021-03-19 08:21:24   •   ID: 2246

The Aesthetics of Paleolithic Artifacts

Figure 1
Statistical modelling techniques, recently introduced in science, revealed that in Africa the earliest human culture, the Oldowan started around 2.6 Ma, followed by the Acheulian at 1.8 Ma. (Alastair J.M. Key et al. 2021).

Ever since the Revolution in different dating techniques during the 1960ies, further refinements of methods led to a permanent "aging" of the beginnings of Tool-making, taking our imagination continuously back in time.

The sophisticated and elongated patinated Fint-Handaxe of this post was found in the mid 20th century at the “Ballastiere 2, Vailly, Aisne"-a site with abundant Acheulian Handaxes, mostly made from fine grained quartzite, but sometimes from high quality flint, too.

For a modern observer, such pieces have a special aesthetic appeal, and are therefore in the focus of collectors and Museum curators. For scientists, they are nearly worthless, because the Aisne gravels are neither in situ, nor can they dated at the moment- see: 1230

The theory of the aesthetic deals with the nature of the beautiful. It includes, amongst other issues, the physical beauty of the Human body and the experience of beauty in nature and art, to name just some examples.

Our idea that aesthetic is constituted by what in the object exceeds absolute need, dates to the times of the European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.

Figure 2
Here I argue for aesthetics as a cross-cultural phenomenon, defined as a valuable sensual human experience.

The thinking about aesthetics in Europe is contested since the early Greek Philosophers and is still being discussed intensively today.

The ancient Greeks believed that beauty consisted of three major components including symmetry, proportion, and harmony and that these issues allowed an objective view of beauty.

Symmetry, in this view was an important characteristic of beauty. About the role of Symmetry in Evolutionary Anthropology- see: 1373 and 2209 .

However, even these early Greek philosophers held different perspectives of what beauty encompassed. The same holds true for the last Centuries in European Art History:

In Europe from the Renaissance until the 19th century, a certain idea of imagined “Classical Art” was essential in the definition of invariable beauty.

Anyhow the concept of beauty changed radically since the early 20th Century, when the act of Individual Creativity itself became the central issue for Modernism in Art and swept away Clasicism, following the development of a globalised, urbanised and industrial World. In particular, aesthetics during the last century became more subjective and individual on a global scale.

Figure 3
Among other influences, the aesthetics of traditional African art became a powerful stimulus for early Modernists like Picasso or E.L. Kirchner (Figure 4). New Geometric Concepts were used by the proponents of Cubism, the early Marcel Duchamp (Figure 5) and the DADA- movement.

Colors became independent from their use in Naturalism for example by Chaim Soutine and the German Expressionism (Figure 4).

While the western artists knew almost nothing about the background of African art, they immediately recognised its spirituality and its power, breaking new ground, in artistic expression.

They immediately adopted the flatness of composition, the use of unconventional materials, techniques of fragmentation and Reassemblage, bright colors and the highly stylization of the human body.

It was this new attitude, that allowed to perceive Paleolithic paintings, sculptures and portable depictions of animals and humans, for the first time, as “Art”.

These new readings became only popular after the discovery of paintings and engravings, often hidden in deep caves or incorporated in the infills of Archaeological untouched Abris, by influential French Prehistorians early in the 20th Century.

Figure 4
As a consequence, symmetry, proportion and harmony lost their role around 1910 to 1920, but some aspects reappeared during postmodernism at the end of the century, although often ironically broken.

The reception of Prehistory touches fundamental art-historical questions: for example, the significance of abstraction. Or in historical retrospect we may ask whether prehistoric artifacts contributed to the development of new concepts in art. Their influence is particularly evident in the work of artists such as Picasso, Baumeister, and Giacometti.

Homo Sapiens, our species, will newer know, if and how, our archaic ancestors perceived the Handaxe of this post in any aesthetic categories.

Regarding my personal view, the beauty of the Biface of this post results from the colors, the careful artisanal execution and the form of this example, while symmetry does not really matter.

If we assume that some Palaeolithic Handaxes were conceptualized far beyond their utilitarian use, we possibly should ascribe them to a specific aesthetics- an issue that should be evaluated more in depth, than the few publications and exhibitions, published till now (see attached external links, especially the text of Paul Galvez).

Figure 5

Figure 1-3: Acheulian Handaxe “Ballastiere 2, Vailly, Aisne". Collection Dalemba before 1930

Figure 4: E.L. Kirchner; Dancing Gerda; WVZ 1912/7 with permission photographed during an Exhibition in Davos 2002

Figure 5: M. Duchamp; Nude, descending a staircase No. 2, 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art (with permission).