The greatest achievements in naturalistic representation in the Upper Paleolithic period (whether in two dimensions or three), with one very important exception, were made at a late stage. This exception is the group of miniature sculptured female figures, described as “Venuses”, that are found between Europe’s Atlantic coast and Siberia at an early stage of the Upper Paleolithic, a period described variously as the Upper Perigordian or Gravettian, which dates from c27,ooo to 23,000 years ago.
If, at first sight, it seems inappropriate to describe figures that are usually neither young nor slender as Venuses, it may be justified by their beauty of form, for the balance of mass and the symmetrical positioning of shapes achieved in these figures is remarkable. While hands, feet, and facial features are almost always omitted, and certain sexual characteristics, such as the pubic triangle, are on occasion represented, or on occasion also omitted, it is the essentially feminine forms of buttock, breast, and stomach that are emphasized. Viewed objectively, the Venus of Lespugue has pendant breasts, a protruding stomach, and fat buttocks, all developed to the point of distortion; but viewed aesthetically, the incline of her breasts and the curve of her buttocks are beautiful and each shape complements the other.
Many of these little ivory or stone figurines have a high polish, which suggests they were much handled and carried about; they are often found in groups and are habitually associated with living sites, whether these were constructed huts, as were made in eastern Europe, or rock shelters, as were used in the west. The individual appearance of the Venuses suggests they are figures of fecundity, made to endow or ensure plenty in some form, rather than to be erotic symbols, and the context in which they are found endorses a domestic importance: beyond this one can offer little explanation of their purpose. As a group (a group which to date numbers nearly I 50 examples) they show great uniformity and with time the basic figure is adapted and simplified into schematized forms of considerable sophistication. The Venuses of Vestonice, Balzi Rossi, and Lespugue are typical examples of the basic naturalistic shape; the Venuses from Kostienki in the USSR, from Gagarino, or the remainder of the group from Balzi Rossi all fall into this type, as does the Venus of Willendorf and the figure from Brassempouy in France, though this statuette has an atypical, more natural beauty, as though a portrayal from life had interfered with the formalized concept. The Venus of Laussel, unusual in that it is carved in low relief on a freestanding stone block, is also atypical; in this case, although the detail is executed carefully, the general ungainly shape suggests a lack of conceptual ability.
With time the Venus figures become diversified, some hermaphroditic forms occur, and the naturalistic female figures are superseded by more schematic forms; in eastern Europe two such variants appear, one based upon
the hips, the other upon the breasts of the basic female figure, while in western Europe it is the raised seat profile, a form of the second variant, that is predominant. The profile shape finds its ultimate reduction in the claviform signs that are drawn in caves in the Magdalenian era; and it is interesting that this final simplification of the Venus figure is not only the last expression of the cult, but here has found a change in location: claviforms are generally part of the decoration of deep, uninhabited caves.
Further reading. Abramova, Z.A. “Palaeolithic Art in the U.S.S.R.”, Arctic Anthropology IV no. 2, (1967) pp1-179. Delporte, H. L’lmage de la Femme dans /’Art Prebistorique, Paris (1979). Hancar, F. Problem der Venusstatuetten im Eurasiatischen [ungpald¬olithikum, Berlin (1940). Leroi-Gourhan, A. The Art of Prehistoric Man in Western Europe, London (1968). Passemard, L. Les Statuettes Feminines Paleolitbiques dites Venus Steatopyges, Nirnes (1938). Saccasyn della Santa, E. Les Figures Humaines du Paleolithique Superieur, Anvers (1947).
It is probable that, originally, every Paleolithic shelter habitation had a painted or engraved overhang, but apart from a few fragments that have been preserved by falling on to the ground below, no painting now remains, with the exception of the newly found cave of Tito Bustillo at Ribadasella (Spain) where a rockfall sealed off the habitation area and its painted overhang. There are a number of rock-cut, low-relief friezes, the most beautiful perhaps being that at Angles-sur-1′ Anglin in Vienne (France) or the horses at Cap Blanc in the Dordogne. The work required to create these, cutting limestone with flint picks, must have been tremendous. It could not have been attempted in deep caves, but from these sculpture is not entirely absent. In the Tue cl’ Audoubert (central Pyrenees, France) there are two beautiful bison modeled in mud that was collected from the cave floor nearby.
When people speak of Paleolithic art they are usually referring to the painted caves, and most probably they consider Lascaux, in the Dordogne, as typical: but the most striking aspect of Lascaux, the fact that the cave is decorated as a single unit, is an almost unique feature. In most caves the paintings are not displayed in this way; only certain, often inconspicuous parts of the cave are decorated; the drawing of one animal is not placed in relation to another with any regard for size or availability of space so that they are often superimposed, even jumbled together; some are unfinished and some may be upside down.
Of the animal species drawn, horses are much the most numerous, followed by bison, oxen, mammoth, deer, ibex,
almost unknown. A few caves have a series of hand prints. Gargas, in the Pyrenees, is famous for these, and in certain areas, or at certain periods, signs are abundant. These signs are schematic: they may be quadrangular, brace-shaped, or composed of groups of dots or lines, and they give some indication of local grouping in cave art. Certain quadrangular signs, for example, are restricted to the Dordogne area while club-shaped signs are found at a later date in the Pyrenees and Spain.
It is not easy to establish a chronology for cave art; style is probably the safest guide. The large-bodied, small-headed animals of Pech Merle (Lot, France) and Lascaux, for example, are early and have affinities to the low-relief friezes, while the very tautly drawn black outline figures of Niaux and Porte! (Ariege, France) or Santimamine (Spain) are of characteristic Middle Magdalenian style. Fifty years ago the Abbe Breuil attempted a detailed classification of cave art based upon style and superpositions and concluded that there were two cycles in its development, but this is no longer accepted: as in miniature art one cycle seems adequate here.
There are decorated caves of an early date but present evidence suggests that the use of deep caves was short lived. The decorated rock-shelters and shallow daylit caves are mainly of early or late date, such as, respectively, Pair-non-Pair (Gironde, France) or La Mairie at Teyjat (Dordogne, France), while in the Middle Magdalenian period (from approximately I 5,000 to 14,000 BC) there was a fashion for decorating caves progressively deeper and where access was more difficult. Lascaux, which has a date of 15,000 years ago, Pech Merle or Cougnac (Lot, France) are among the earliest of these deep sancruaries while Niaux, Le Portel, and the Volp caverns (Les Trois Freres, Le Tue d’ Audoubert), in the French Pyrenees and the Spanish group in Monte Castillo near Santander (Castillo, Monedas, Pasiega, Chimeneas) are among the later, as is Al-amira. Some caves are clearly one period in style, such as Niaux; others, such as Castillo, had a long use and show a succession of styles. The majority are difficult to reach and cannot have had an everyday use and, although miniature art may have filled that requirement, the deep caves were apparently abandoned in the Late Magdalenian in favor of open-air sanctuaries once more, formed by groups of engraved plaquetres or wall engravings.
Breuil and his contemporaries were interested in the content and style of mural art but could see no meaningful design in its layout. They concluded that it was the creation of each individual drawing that was important and the animal species shown, mostly edible animals, suggested that this art was a form of sympathetic magic for hunting; a view endorsed by the occurrence of arrows drawn on the flanks of some animals. For a time such an explanation seemed adequate but the recent work of Leroi Gourhan and others has called it into question. Leroi Gourhan has studied specifically the layout of cave paintings and concludes that this is far from haphazard: in fact he considers that it follows a formula. Certain animals, horses and bovines, are of primary importance and are given central positions. Others, such as ibex and mammoth, are peripheral and of secondary importance; superpositions, unfinished outlines, signs of various forms all have their place and the formula may be repeated, at intervals, a number of times in one cave. The virtue of his interpretation is that it takes account of elements such as superpositioning, human figures, and signs for which sympathetic magic could offer no explanation. Certain signs may indeed be interpreted as traps, clubs, or even houses, but such an explanation does not invalidate Leroi-Gourhan’s conclusions. There are further objections to the theory of sympathetic magic. Firstly, archaeological evidence shows that reindeer was the principal game of Upper Paleolithic hunters, but it is little represented in the art. Secondly, although climate and the available animal species varied greatly throughout the Upper Paleolithic, the inventory of animals in the art is remarkably constant. And finally, current ethnographic research suggests, by analogy, that the Upper Paleolithic was a period of considerable plenty.
We know that, although the climate was periodically severe, vegetation and large animals were very abundant and we should realize that, far from being threatened by starvation, Paleolithic man had no need to supplicate for food to be provided. The creation of cave sanctuaries suggests Paleolithic art had a magical or religious importance, while its quality, its homogeneity, and its duration demand a social sanction of great strength. We may conclude that it was not simply decorative, but had a great and continuing social importance. It may be assumed that miniature art is an expression in different media and locations of the same beliefs as mural art; tools, for example, may be invested with some added power by decoration.
Ethnographic parallels are of little value in explaining Paleolithic art, beyond the fact that Australian aboriginal art, for example, suggests that its meaning may be very complex. Leroi-Gourhan thinks that the limited and repeated number of animals in mural art constitutes a mythogram and that what one sees may only represent a vehicle for a meaning that one can only guess at; in his opinion, a synthesis of the universe, perhaps.
The Paleolithic is a period for which we have no social
history; rather we look to the art to give us some insight into the mentality of its creators. In so doing we see the work of artists who could perfectly conceptualize and execute a formula, who had mastered all the problems of rendering three dimensions in two, and who could instantly create an image by an ideogram. Further, from the development and duration of the art we can deduce a considerable degree of social har-mony. Paleolithic art represents an unbroken religious and artistic tradition lasting for 20,000 years, a phenomenon that has not been repeated.