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.