Prehistory: A modern enigma

Centre Pompidou, 8th May – 16th September 2019

Prehistoric art influenced many artists of the Twentieth Century.

The Lascaux Cave paintings were made public at the end of the Second World War. It was perhaps fortuitous timing, given the Western art worlds interest in abstraction and mannerist art. When Picasso saw the art, he said “They’ve invented everything”.

Judith Thurman has said:

What those first artists invented was a language of signs for which there will never be a Rosetta stone; perspective, a technique that was not rediscovered until the Athenian Golden Age; and a bestiary of such vitality and finesse that, by the flicker of torchlight, the animals seem to surge from the walls, and move across them like figures in a magic-lantern show (in that sense, the artists invented animation).
New Yorker

The exposition at the Pompidou, exhibits many paintings which draw on the style developed at Lascaux.

Brassai saw in the scribblings on factory walls, the same primordial urgings or primitive man.

The other so-called gods of our legends

For all its modernity, the finest piece of show is the “Venus of Lespurge“, a finely carved piece of mammoth ivory. Dating from 23,000 BCE it is a sign of humanity’s creative urges and a hint at the forces behind it.


The soi disant Venus figures are images of women from the prehistoric period, often perceived as abstracted symbols (or magical items) of fertility.

As we wandered around, my companion uttered some lines of David Jones:

Twenty millenia (and what millennia more?)
Since he became
man master-of-plastic.

Who were his gens-men or has he no Hausname yet
no nomen for his fecit-mark
the Master of the Venus?
whose man-hands god-handled the Willendorf stone

Quote originally from the Anathemata, copied from Divine Cartographies by W David Soud

Jones here perceives The Artist as male, for which we have no real evidence. The curves of the Venuses perhaps suggests an erotic gaze, but this could be a modern interpretation.

Similar figures depict mother and child, an image that has resonated throughout time, most notably in religious iconography like Isis Lactans and its offshoots.

The artist as dinosaur

Robert Smithson is perhaps one culmination of this. His masculine bravado pieces have a bit of everything the modern man might like, fast cars, plans, gangsters, scantily clad young ladies and dinosaurs.

Male artists seem to like dinosaurs a lot. Like them, they are urgent, strong, fierce, muscly, tough etc. Or are they? Modern research tends to prove that many dinosaurs were social creatures, covered in bright feathers. Perhaps, the Male Artist is drawn to the dinosaur because He too is oblivious of the destruction coming his way.

Jake et Dinos Champman’s installation Hell Sixty-Five Million Years BC[E] shows happy paper mâché dinosaurs frolicking on display stands around a Science Project-esque Volcano oblivious of the asteroid above them. Profound and playful.


The finest pieces of dinosaur art are those by Levi Fisher Ames. His dinosaurs are friendly and vulnerable, like pets. They beg for their bellies to be rubbed or to be stroked, like so many dogs.

An exposition of absence

Yet for all its fine objects, it is an exhibition of absences. The absence of humans, the absence of time, the absence of structure.

Science becomes one way of bringing meaning to a period without humans. Art another.

Some artists have embraced this vacuum. Richard Long’s Snake Circle is a carefully structured stone circle which eludes to Stonehenge and Avebury, the motions of the sun and moon, the Pythagorean circle and the magic circle of Faustus. Yet the stones are not the art but the frame. The centre of the piece is emptiness, embued with meaning. A powerful piece that demands attention.


The most arresting piece however is Miquel Barcelo’s Il trionogo della morte, a site specific piece of art, wet clay daubed on the windows of the Pompidou. Primitive expressionism over the touristic Wunderschaufesnter of the Paris cityscape. It is an urgent piece that challenges a complacent audience.



A triumph.

Photo refereneces

Venus of Lespurge by Vassill CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication