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Dim Beginnings

The Eternal Present Vol. I: The Beginning of Art (The A.W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Arts, 1957)

by S. Giedion
Bollingen Series, Pantheon Books, $12.50

This volume, the first of two on the earliest art of the Western world, is the first work on prehistory to provide anything like an encyclopedic photographic coverage of Paleolithic mural art. A large portion of the splendid photographs were taken by experts for the author and appear here for the first time—some in color; they are supplemented by the extraordinary drawings of Barbara Boehrs done in a kind of pointillist technique which greatly reduces the distortions of earlier “facsimiles.” Like other major Giedion books, this is distinguished by fine layout and typography which, together with a novel method of reference to the illustrations, makes it a joy to read and to refer to.

It is astonishing that a historian and critic of modern architecture who published his first book in 1922 should, in his late sixties, enter and command an entirely new field in which the mere task of visiting the monuments often requires the agility of youth and the fortitude of a miner. Yet the Eternal Present not only leaps these hurdles but does it with infectious enthusiasm.

The text is built around the illustrations, and it mercifully discusses only examples we can see. It undertakes to answer questions the general reader is most likely to ask: what the representations of animals, humans, and abstract symbols mean, and how the cave style develops within the Paleolithic period. There is a prologue on the nature of abstraction and an epilogue on the concept of space in cave art. The subject is exceptionally hard to handle; because the art itself is almost the only evidence of the culture, there are many cases where the information we can expect to get from the commentator either can be had directly from the illustrations or is just hypothetical.

In the large portion of his text devoted to the analysis of symbolism—hand-images and impressions, circular forms, fertility symbols, “great” (abstract) symbols, animals, anthropomorphic types—Giedion is constrained either to leave the meanings unexplained or to adopt one of a number of guesses by experts who use such suspicious procedures as inferring interpretations by analogy to Neolithic or modern primitive art. (It seems to me that Paleolithic studies have been the most muddle-headed branch of archaeology.) There would be no way of evading this uncertainty except, perhaps, to de-emphasize symbolic content. The difficulty with organizing material by subject matter is that one takes a particular image out of context in order to examine it with other like images rather than with those that surround it, with artifacts found nearby, and with relevant geological and paleontological evidence of all sorts. Giedion is aware of the significance of context and gives us a spirited account of “The Great Compositions” at Lascaux, Altamira, and other famed sites; yet the bulk of the book offers single figures isolated from their setting, as if in a museum. What slight evidence there is on the makers and the making of cave art falls into the background, and we get no grasp of the species or race of the artists, the materials they used, their tools and technology, their relation to prehistoric man in other areas and in later periods, or, most disturbing, the time span in which they worked. Though the subdivisions of the Paleolithic era are presented by their scientific designations, we are left to cope with them without explanation or chart, or any grasp of the theories concerning the antiquity of the art.

Casualness about context affects the account of the chronology of cave art, too: the evolution of Paleolithic style is presented as if it could be read directly from the works. The generally accepted proposition is that the pictorial style evolved from awkward to sophisticated and highly abstract, and that the evolution was everywhere uniform (e.g., no example was provincial, retarded, or deliberately archaic). That proposition is not necessarily right or wrong; since there have been arts that evolved in both directions (Greek Archaic toward the sophisticated, Roman Imperial toward the awkward), it simply needs to be justified by sounder, external, chronological evidence.

These comments are really leveled at the experts in the field, and not at Giedion, who has done us the great service of mastering their work and presenting it palatably. What is distinctly Giedion’s in the book is the use of what might be called the flash-forward technique to point up similarities of form and content between cave art and the paintings of the earlier twentieth century. I do not find this illuminating for either period: it is prompted by the expressionist aesthetic of Wilhelm Worringer (Abstraction and Empathy, 1908, which also magnetized Malraux), as Giedion explains in a long passage (pp.39 ff.) full of Germanic pomposities like “cosmic anguish.” The point is that abstraction is a sort of immanent force in art that was squashed by the classical tradition: “Abstraction as an artistic means of expressing emotional demands had lain buried through centuries: pushed back into the unconscious. At its rebirth around 1910, the same types we found in primeval art again came to the fore.” This sounds a little old-fashioned from the perspective of the second half of the twentieth century, when the art of 1910 has come to look more evolutionary than revolutionary, and we have come to see its roots in the Renaissance and the nineteenth century. The affinity of early twentieth-century art to that of the Stone Age is only one manifestation of its huge historical voracity, and to confront Miro and Klee with cave painting is no more revealing than to confront Picasso’s classicizing figures with the Parthenon pediments.

Throughout the book, this onus of German philosophizing makes simple problems portentous and difficult, in the style of this sentence quoted from Bachofen: “Symbols carry the spirit beyond the finite world of becoming into the realm of infinite being”; it teases us into believing that there are mysterious secrets to be unearthed in cave art if only we approach it introspectively enough. The title of the book is this kind of teaser; it means, as we discover on the last page, only that there is no sense of time or sequence in cave art. Yet this observation concludes a valuable analysis of the implications of a style which has no frame or axis and no up or down (“The Space Conception of Prehistory,” pp. 512-538). In sum, Giedion’s difficulties are all at the level of generalization; he treats the actual works with clarity and sympathy as well as with enthusiasm.

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