Primitive art: Wall and cave paintings

What I’m looking for here is how sophisticated art is. To begin with, how good are artists from any given period at portraying three dimensions in two dimensions? Receding train tracks, or the pre-train era equivalent, indicate a minimum of late concrete operational (linear logical) thinking. So I will only be looking at drawings and paintings, not sculptures. My main source for art history is Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A global history. (Thirteenth edition, by Fred S. Kleiner, 2009. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, but also some earlier editions, depending on what was on the library shelf at the time.)

The oldest paintings we have are from caves in Europe and the Middle East. These date from the early creative explosion (circa 30,000 years ago).

Paleolithic cave paintings (circa 30,000 – 8,000 BCE)

A lot of the paintings from this period are animals. They may be outlines or painted in, and they are isolated, rather than against a background. Sometimes they are clustered together or overlapping each other. (Some of these remind me of an artist’s sketchbook.) Some of the animals are painted in a twisted perspective, with the body in profile and the face viewed head on, in order to see all the details better. This is similar to the way children in middle childhood sometimes draw things. Some of the paintings include human stick figures.

Here are some examples from France, the first from ca. 22,000 BCE, the latter two from ca. 15,000-13,000 BCE:

cave at Pech-Merle c. 22000 BCEHall of the Bulls, Lascaux, Dordogne France ca.15k-13k BCELascaux, Dordogne, France 2

The animals with horns or antlers are drawn so you can see both horns/antlers. The head on the animal in the last example is quite twisted, not just because it’s attacking the hunter.

Some of these murals look like artist sketchbooks to me, with the animals added in wherever there’s room. Example from Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave, France:


This period also has lots of handprints. There are some in the top example here.

Neolithic wall paintings (circa 8,000 – 2,300 BCE)

Wall paintings from this period are more sophisticated. There are more human figures, and they may be painted in more instead of just being stick figures. What’s more, you get paintings of groups of humans hunting animals – actual tableaus rather than just a jumble of figures. Human figures are sometimes shown in twisted perspective, with bodies in profile below the waist and viewed from the front above the waist.

Example – I don’t have a date or location for this:


There is also a painting at Çatalhöyük (Catal Hoyuk) that may be a landscape or map that is flat, with mountains in the background and the city laid out in front – there is no sense of depth in the painting. Technically it’s not a cave painting – it’s a mural, but it’s close enough, and it fits better here than in the next post.


So far everything is flat. There is no sense of perspective – no sense of three dimensions portrayed in two. All this art comes from a period where human cultures had a mental age of no more than seven – the representational synthesis. If my theory is correct, perspective would not appear before the classical era anywhere. (I didn’t cheat and look at art first – the stages are devised from literature.)

I will look at the transition to classical culture in the next post.

(P.S. I came across a reference to research an art historian did applying cognitive developmental research to art history and was going to look at it after finishing this series of posts, but can’t find the reference. If I find it again I will probably read it and report on how well I did. But it’s always best to figure things out for yourself first then check against others. At least for this sort of thing.)

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