History of Photography

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History of Photography Seminars

1. The Prehistories of European Art

A background to the history of art from a neolithic perspective

In a digital age, we can look back on the earlier age of classical chemical photography. There is however a broader continuity between the work of the very earliest artists and those of the late twentieth century. Many of the conventions of photography were inherited from earlier works made by painters, for example photographers inherited the portrait format for representing the subject in a vertical rectanglular plane and its compliment the landscape format for representation in a horizontal plane.

Apart from rectangular format the earliest photographers also used earlier models of representation devised by visual artists. These include the portrait and the various categories or genres of painting and illustration; landscape, seascape, still life, domestic and street scenes, architecture and the interiors of public buildings. Photography while different from drawing and painting, does however demand that similar questions are answered by any author namely; what to represent? and how to represent it?

The seminar investigates the earliest prehistoric artworks and asks whether there are shared common values between our ancient ancestors and the artists of the late twentieth century. The paintings of Jeanne Michel Basquiat (d.1989) will be compared to works by paleolithic artists.

 
 
The earliest cultural artefacts
 

During the Ice Age (circa 60,000 - 10,000 BC) ice sheets cover Northern Europe, by 10,000 bc the sheets had retreated to approximately where they are today.

Art historians divide the Ice Age into three periods which correspond to three different changes in the style of the drawings and rock paintings in Europe.

Aurignacian 60- 40,000bc Linear Style
Early Magdalanean 40- 25,000bc Pictorial Style
Late Magdalanean 25-10,000bc Linear Style

During the Aurignacian period ice age humans could be found as far apart as Siberia and Northern China to France and Spain. They utilised bone tools and used shells for barter. This is period of great cultural homogeneity, where artefacts are very similar across all sites in Southern Europe and Asia. There is extensive evidence of cultural activity by artists particularly rock paintings during the Magdalanean period. There are rarer, earlier examples of early drawings by man in the Aurigniac Cave in France.

Architecture had not yet developed and caves were the domestic home, at various sites particular caves have been richly ornamented, these caves had a role which was not domestic but was associated with magic, religion and spirituality.

 
Venus of Willendorf (circa 30,000 bc)
 
Sculpture, for example the many extant attributed representations of Venus and in particular the Venus of Willendorf (30,000bc) are considered to be associated with totemic use. There is further evidence of a broader cultural developments, bone whistles and the drum, indicating musical activities and the spoken voice has developed a narrative form as for example the aboriginal song line of the same period in the southern hemisphere..
 
 
Developments in European Ice Age drawing
 

1. Aurignacian: 60K - 40k BC (named after Aurignac cave in France) drawings of animals eg. mammoths are drawn in outline only.

2. Early Magdalanean:30k -c.25k BC drawings become Pictorial, means have been found to convey plasticity and depth.Overlapping figures, paint is sprayed (by mouth), also use of feathers as a drawing tool.

3. Late Magdalanean :c.25k - 10k marks the end of the Ice Age and the beginning of the Stone Age with a return to linear conventions and the accentuation of outline.

 

By 10,000 bc the ice sheets have melt back,

The Ice Age is followed by the Stone Age (10,000 - 2,000 bc) whch again has three phases.

 
 
The Three Phases of the European Stone Age
 

1. Paleolithic : Old Stone Age 10,000 BC

2. Mesolithic : Middle Stone Age 8,000 BC

3. Neolithic : New Stone Age 3-2,000 BC to 1000BC (Bronze Age)

 

During the European stone age there is evidence during the neolithic period showing evidence of agriculture, worked flint tools and pottery. These peoples no longer inhabit caves but live in sunken wooden shelters and have develped monumental architecture such as Stonehenge (c.1900 bc).

Drawing in the mesolithic period was highly descriptive and illustrations of "gathering honey" and "Men leading animals with Halters" have been found. Increasingly stone age drawings became stylised, to the extent that during the neolithic period drawings and stylized human forms are so nearly reduced to symbols that they look like a script or writing.

For example the Moon becomes a sign - the crescent, this is important for agriculturalists who depend on the systematic division of time.

Calendars are in use by priests and wizards, in knowing the changes of the year, they can fix and determine the weeks and the months.In Mesopotamian cultures from 2,000 BC onwards the Cross, The Quartered Wheel and the Swastika are used as symbols for the division of the universe into 4 seasons.

In Europe however symbolic drawing did not develop into a real script because there was no overrall political or ecclesiastical authority. By contrast representation during the hierarchical Egyptian civilization did develop a language of hieroglyphs.

 
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