Smoke from the torches stings his eyes, making it difficult to see. The dancing flames bring the animals to life, a magical hunt galloping across the walls of the cavern. It is warm here, sheltered from the icy blast of the wind. Here he will spend the dark time when the sun is weak in the sky. Not for him the warmth of the hearth and the laughter of children, he is alone in the dark womb of earth.
They bring him meat from the home place, the caves that look out onto the grasslands. They bring him water and wood for the flames. And the old one brings him tales of magic to weave on the walls, gratitude for survival and a plea for good hunting and rich life as the seasons turn.
They bring him the clay and stones that make the colour and he turns the earth into hope on the walls of the cavern… the place of the gods.
Bison stream across the painted plain, horses and aurochs, lions and bears…even the old one, the shaman in his feathered mask and his staff. The walls run with game and magic… the stuff of life.
Over seventeen thousand years would pass before these paintings once more captured the imagination of man. Yet the magical caverns of Lascaux are young in comparison to the oldest paintings that still survive. More than forty thousand years ago an ochre handprint was placed on the wall of a cavern in Spain, an intimate touch of life preserved. It is so old that we do not even know the type of man that made it… it may even have been one of the much maligned Neanderthals. Over the course of the next few thousand years other images were painted there… a red orb, a whole wall of handprints, horses… Why? We cannot know, only wonder.
What we can know is that our forefathers saw something magical in the making of images…the capturing of a moment in time and pinning it in paint or relief on a wall.
The oldest evidence of artwork goes back even further and the controversial finds at the Blombos cave suggest that our passion for images and colour goes back perhaps as far as a hundred thousand years.
The Blombos finds in South Africa are not accepted as art by the whole scientific community. They consist of geometric patterns engraved on pieces of ochre… many of which are rubbed smooth as if they had been used for grinding pigment… and which, it has been suggested, represent mere doodles rather than holding any significance. From the perspective of a painter, rather than a scientist, my contention is that to doodle requires that one understands the concept of making an image… and is therefore still art.
Many so called primitive cultures have used abstract geometric patterns, sometimes symbolically, sometimes simply as just that… decorative patterns. Yet are not all such designs symbolic of something seen or observed in the natural world?
The fragments of worn ochre at Blombos may have been used to paint something that has not stood the test of time and preservation as well as the walls of deep caverns… our own fragile flesh. Think of the indigenous peoples who still practice body art of this kind, where the lines and dots weave a symbolic story across the flesh of the wearer. Are they so different from the fashionable tattoos that are placed upon our skin as a permanent memorial to a person or event?
From the first moment an image was drawn with a stick in the mud, painted on a body or a wall, moulded from a lump of clay… or even recognised in the strangely eroded rocks that scatter our landscapes… imagination took on new depth and with it thought could find a language of expression that trancends.. may even predate…speech. And it is from these humblest of scratchings that literature, philosophy, and beauty have been shared across time and history.
What is writing, after all, but a collection of images… symbols… that have come to be understood through a consensus of meaning? Yet long before we teach our children their first ABC they have learned to recognise images, for we live in a world of pictures, snapshots that change moment by moment…every second that our eyes are open we see them, and when they are closed we watch them flit across the screen of the mind. Images are communication, both with each other and within ourselves.
Today we live in a highly visual society, where television and cinema, digital images and high impact advertising constantly bombard our eyes with information and colour. But when we strip it all back to basics, how much difference is there between the way we use images now, and the way our forefathers used them… to entertain, to inform, to teach… even to control and direct. Because it is true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Each one tells a story.
Appendix III, The Osiriad