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SCULPTURE OF THE STONE AGE

IT’S SAID THAT Michelangelo “liberated bodies that were trapped in blocks of marble.” And, hundreds of millennia before this, stone age hominins chipped away at stone to reveal tools and, conjectured by anthropologists, to create art as well. The London Review of Books describes this in “At the Nasher Sculpture Centre,” by Anne Wagner, in its April 5, 2018, issue.

The Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas had an exhibit, through April 28, 2018, titled “First Sculpture: Handaxe to Figure Stone.” What follows are tidbits gleaned from Anne Wagner’s LRB review of this exhibit and a bit of Internet sleuthing.

The Venus of Willendorf. This 4.4-in. figurine was unearthed in 1908 near Willendorf, Austria. Image by Don Hitchcock.

The Venus of Willendorf, carved some time between 28,000 and 24,000 B.C., has been considered the earliest known work of sculpture. This female figure of carved limestone dates from the same Upper Paleolithic period as the Lascaux and Altamira cave wall paintings.

However, stone handaxes from as long ago as 500,000 B.C. have anthropologists suggesting that these objects also qualify as art, not merely stone-age tools. Anne Wagner notes, “Both form and function became subjects of thought. It transpired that an axe could be flaked from a flint ‘core’ by means of a sequence of precisely struck blows (‘knapping’).”

Wagner continues, “The proposal explored at the Nasher is that sculpture emerged from the gradual evolution of an efficiently functioning technology based in the skilled shaping of stone. And from that practice emerged a set of founding principles recognizable as the fundamentals of art.”

An early handaxe, excavated from Gesher Benot Ya’aqov, Israel, dating c. 780,000 B.C.

What makes a knapped handaxe art?

“The process discovers what is possible,” says Wagner, “as opposed to preordained. This distinction is crucial…. One persuasive reason to see at least some handaxes as sculpture stems from their nuanced and exacting display of formal goals.”

Symmetry, Wagner notes, is an example of an artistic principle that “isn’t particularly helpful where skinning prey and stripping bones are concerned. A double-edged tool doubles the risk of injury to the palm or fingers of the working hand.”

In a sense, the maker of a symmetric tool assessed this risk second to the aesthetic pleasure of a well-balanced shape. Also, a tool maker might have chosen to retain artful details of the stone itself.

A handaxe from Grindle Pit, England, c. 300,000 B.C.

Note as well how the maker of the Grindle Pit handaxe artfully knapped around the twisted ovate nature of the stone.

Another example of artistic composition is the West Tofts handaxe, discovered near a Norfolk, England, village in 1911. Its maker chose to knap around delicate flutes of a fossilized spiny oyster embedded in the stone. The knapping, Wagner observes, “frames the fossil in a stony proscenium: with a few deft blows the decorative element has been brought into relief.”

The West Tofts handaxe, c. 500,000 to 300,000 B.C.

In How To Think Like a Neandertal, by Thomas Wynn, Oxford University Press, 2011, its anthropologist author says ancient hominins “thought in stone.”

And very artfully indeed. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

2 comments on “SCULPTURE OF THE STONE AGE

  1. Bill Urban
    April 29, 2018

    Thanks, Dennis. Fascinating.

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