Detail of Lion-man
Detail of Venus of Willendorf,
Prehistoric Lascaux Shaman Art Study by Paula Kuitenbrouwer
As far as we know now, the oldest ‘religion’ is shamanism and the oldest art is prehistoric cave art, as to be found, for instance, in the French cave of Lascaux and the cave of Hohlenstein Stadel, Germany.
I’ve drawn a shamanistic or prehistoric art theme study. My drawing shows Venus of Willendorf and Lion-man of Hohlenstein Stadel at its centre.
The Venus of Willendorf, a.k.a. the Woman of Willendorf, 28,000 – 25,000 B.C.E, which is an 11.1-centimetre high statuette of a female figure estimated to have been made between about 28,000 and 25,000 BCE. I adore this hand-size small statuette and in order to understand it deeper, I’ve drawn Venus front, back and side-ways. I’ve discovered such fine details and by drawing this small statuette, my appreciation for it has grown and grown. I’m sure you have seen it before, but have you noticed Venus’s skinny arms, and her small fingers resting on her (pregnant) breasts? Did you notice that she has three scars on her left arm and that, maybe as a result of these scars, her fingers of her left hand are badly shaped?
‘Why has she no face?’, I kept asking myself. It isn’t because the carver couldn’t handle details, look at her skilful and detailed hair-do! Maybe her face isn’t featured because what she represents is bigger than her individuality. ‘Why are her arms so disproportional skinny?’ And related to this, ‘why is she missing her feet?’ (Scientist don’t believe they got lost). Venus has arms, hands and fingers, but why did Venus’s creator chose to give her emaciated arms? What is the narrative of this decision? Should we see Venus’s skinny arms and missing feet in relation to her missing facial features and conclude that Venus is not a person, but as a goddess, a fertility symbol? But is she pregnant as so many assume? She looks like having a high BMI; did prehistoric pregnant women have a high BMI? I can only picture prehistoric people as rather slender, and pregnant women slender with a bigger belly. Although a mammoth is a big meal, there weren’t prehistoric supermarkets full ready-to-eat meals.
Catherine McCoid and LeRoy McDermott have hypothesised that the figurines may have been created as self-portraits by women, that is a self portrait carved by looking down on your own body, having no mirror at hand to correct that top-down perspective. The woman looks down and sees her bodily features but her feet are overshadowed by her big belly. But if a woman looks down on her (pregnant or big) belly, she indeed doesn’t see her feet, but she doesn’t see her vulva either and the Venus of Willendorf has a vulva and legs. Although McCoid and LePoys self-portrait theory is very interesting, it is a 21st century theory that has an individual (observation) at its heart. For me the missing face and feet and the skinny arms are references that stretch further than a wish to make a 3d self portrait.
The Hohlenstein Stadel lion-man dates back 40.000 years. ‘Man’ stands here for human, because the gender of this statuette, is uncertain. This statuette is 11 cm height, 3 times taller than Venus. Lion-man is half man- half animal. Lion-man is sculptured from woolly mammoth ivory and probably one of the oldest known zoomorphic (animal-shaped) sculpture in the world. Remarkable are the seven parallel, transverse, carved gouges are on the left arm. If I’ve correctly observed, Venus of Willendorf has 3 markings/scars on her left arm. ‘Why?’ I ask myself, while I study these statuettes by drawing them. Did prehistoric people vaccinate themselves by setting scratches is upper-arms? That is a very 21st hypothesis, but do not underestimate how clever prehistoric people were. Although there is no proof that prehistoric cave people performed brain surgery as the ancient Inca surgeons (AD 1000) did, by successfully removed small portions of patients’ skulls to treat head injuries, prehistoric cave people might have had their smart ways with administering herbs and drugs for medical reasons. But maybe it had nothing to do with health but with hierarchy. After all, we still use army stripes to communicate military hierarchy.
For me, sitting quietly in my studio, reading, drawing and studying brings me close to the objects that I draw or paint. This process of mindfully observing, quieting the mind and focussing on the object is bridging the gap between the object and me. Firstly, I appreciate the features and carves that shape Venus and Lion-man, but then I try to steer away from art appreciation. I try to feel what the creators of Venus and Lion-man had in mind. I try to see how many hours they have worked on these statuettes. Did they use models? Where were they when they made these statuettes? And finally, I arrive at deeper questions, why these carves on their arms? Why don’t they have human faces? Are these statuettes ‘l’art pour l’art’, for the sake of art exclusively, or are these statuettes used in shamanistic rituals?
As a vegan and pet owner, I love reading about research that rebukes differences between animals and humans. There is hardly a week passing without scientific evidence emerging on how clever animals are and how humanly they behave. By now we know bees do maths and pigs are extremely sensitive so smart that they can do maths too when they are rewarded with snacks (like …right, children). Regarding hybrid statuettes, I so wonder whether there is a why, when or who to the difference between choosing prehistoric hydride statutes having a human body with an animal (like Lion-man) and, for instance sphinxes, having an animal body with a human head.
In the background of my study of Venus of Willendorf and Lion-man of Hohlenstein Stadel, I’ve drawn the stick topped by a bird of the shamanistic scene of Lascaux ‘Prostrate man with Bison’, hand prints as found in many prehistoric caves, ‘Engraved deer’ and ‘Large black cow’, also both Lascaux paintings.
For many prehistoric art is the start-point of art, based on the assumption that we have gained much since 40.000 BCE. Having studied many hours of art history, I fully appreciate and understand the assumption of linear progression. Yet, when I study prehistoric art, the question that nags me persistently and makes me lose track of time, that makes me hungry for more and more hours of studying is; ‘What have we lost since 40.000 BCE?’. Scientific research and shamanistic books make me think that we have lost a lot. I hope that by studying more, through reading and drawing, I will regain a bit more insight in why we are so stunned by prehistoric art and what we have lost.