What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears.
~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca
It was the same Lucius who had complained about the perilous loom of pestilence all over Rome. At the moment, he was being teared away from his family. His wife couldn’t stop crying, and so this was what he said.
Seneca crossed my mind when I leaned over that rail, drenched in a nostalgic sepia. In the distant evening sky, a tiny plane glided away. Pain, sadness, tragedy – that’s how life is. You just choose from the most severe ones to shed tears upon. Right from the moment you squirm your eyes and see this world for the first time, an excruciating tragedy begins. You live, laugh and love, all the while inching towards an inescapable end. But the echoes of laughter are never happy. These are the memories that don’t have an empirical existence. These are the memories you shall never be able to fully reconstruct. These are the memories that are lost piece by piece, bit by bit. It’s soul-shattering to watch a life – because life is nothing but an upturned hourglass of death….
Pyramids and papyrus both preserve the person…one protects his physical existence, the other his metaphysical….
2,800 years before Shah Jahan built Taj Mahal for Mumtaj, a heartbroken Ramasses stared at the lifeless body of his wife, Nefertari, and felt his soul tear into pieces. He then went on to build her the most beautiful tomb in the Valley of the Queens and wrote on the walls a beautiful poem which roughly translates into – The beauty of my love (Nefertari) is unravelled. She passes by me and my heart is hers.
But words alone could not capture the unbounded love Ramasses had for his beautiful companion, so he commissioned the best painters to adorn the walls of her new home. If you somehow manage to smuggle yourself inside her burial chamber, you’d find paintings based on the Book of Dead, giving her a safe passage to the Gods, telling her about the spells which could turn her into a free bird in the afterlife. Ramasses made sure his wife was happy even after her death.
With Bronze age civilizations, paintings blossomed, both in terms of physical attributes and symbolic depth. When Egyptians marked the first line on the papyrus leaf, it was a profound upgrade from the bison outlines by stone age men, for now they had a spectacular story to tell and more importantly, plenty of queens to immortalise.
Let me tell you how the society had changed by then. Food production had already begun millenniums ago, surplus production had led to specialisation which paved way for the growth of trade and economy. Society was divided into various pockets, and hierarchies were already a common phenomenon. Gods had come into the picture and so had the concept of fear psychosis. There were priests accumulating wealth, a ruling elite with all the power and the subjects who had enough to survive. Painting was already the elixir of the elite by then.
As it is today, even then, nobody wanted to die. So they painted their desire to live, whether in life or death. The dead people were shown fully alive and merry, being welcomed by Gods; warriors were shown punching death at its face. Death was a nightmare they were trying to fight and change. This thought is reflected in those ancient paintings. It was a way to communicate with the dead, a fundamental human tendency to protect wordly ties even after they snap and disappear forever. It was a way to depict human endeavours and how those endeavours pushed mortals one step closer to God. There’s a reason why you find Gilgamesh tearing lions apart and not being perched on a commode wondering about the turbulence in his intestines. This appreciation for glory is a product of civilization.
The paintings show what was going on inside the minds of the fortunate ones; maybe the poor painted as well, but their masterpieces could not survive for so long. I’d love to watch a tattered sketchbook from 1600 BCE, painted by a little kid, who was innocently trying to evade the footfalls of death by freezing a moment of life on a piece of papyrus.
60,000 years before Homo Sapiens developed writing as a method to symbolise, calculate and emote, Neanderthals made the first hand prints on the cave walls of Maltravieso. On a temporal scale, the history of painting is around 24 times larger than that of Socrates, 10 times larger than that of writing, 6 times larger than that of food production and 5 times larger than that of the Holocene geological epoch. Painting as an art form has metamorphosed since then, to a point where we can just smear our fingers across our gorilla glasses and get hyperealistic portraits.
In this series I shall try to capture important developments in painting and how those made a lasting impact on the course of the development of homo sapiens and the society.
Humans did not begin with a Monalisa – the first paintings, in terms of their aesthetic appeal, were a child’s scribbles. But the significance of a painting is not limited to pleasing the eyes of the beholder, for if that were the case, paintings would have gone extinct after the proliferation of photography. If paintings have managed to coexist with selfie culture, there’s a reason behind that.
Paintings are to emote. They are to convey the heart’s deepest feelings, which words can never communicate. You can never tell your beloved how beautiful they are. You run out of words, gobble up thesaurus after thesaurus, and it dawns upon you that language does not have enough to describe a single one of their ethereal attributes. That’s why we turn to metaphors. Painting is the most vivid metaphor humans have developed to compensate for the incompetency of words. A Neanderthal could not speak a language, yet it could love and be loved, it could emote like humans. And so it turned to paintings.
The emotional spectrum of a Man is not limited to the shades of love, it ranges from bleak dejection to thunderous rage to effervescent euphoria. And the dictionary runs out of words every time. So we paint. And so did they.
Cave art shows a wide range of subjects including animals, hunting scenes, daily activities and deities. The art evolved from symbols to shapes to scenes to sequences to stories. It was such an important part of life that it took a ritualistic character. A Homo Sapien was alone and new to the world. The complexities of nature scared him. So it resorted to painting for comfort, protection and expression.
Cave art does not make you fall for it at the first sight, instead, it asks you to look carefully, remove all the biases and perceptions you’ve consumed in the manufactured environment of the 21st century, get back to those palaeolithic millenniums and watch that young lady smear bisons on bare rocks. Look at her clothes, at her hair, at her face, travel with her for a day, go hunting with her, sit by her in front of that fire, let her offer you some rhinoceros balls, watch her sleep. Know her and then look at her art; you might discover a poet in a cavewoman. This may occur to you as some next level romantic shit, but the truth is that we began to paint because we could feel and contemplate, and had an ardent desire to express, and that’s evident in early cave art.
Mesolithic rockart at Bhimbetka shows how despite being thousands of miles and years apart, humans did not forget the art and purpose of painting. If you happen to visit those ancient homes and pass by those masterpieces, don’t pretend that you cannot understand them and move on – stay for a while and think about that girl in the cave, smearing a bison as her people watched in awe. Maybe she was a Vinci of her own time.