Prehistoric Pointillism?

ARTS

Newly discovered 38,000-year-old cave art predates the French post-Impressionist art form. (Smithsonian)

What else was going on in those French caves?

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

These prehistoric blocks feature polka-dot representations of mammoths (A and B) and a horse (C). Other pre-“Pointillist” blocks feature aurochs and rhinoceroses. Image courtesy Randall White et. al, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2017.02.001 “Newly discovered Aurignacian engraved blocks from Abri Cellier: History, context and dating”

These prehistoric blocks feature polka-dot representations of mammoths (A and B) and a horse (C). Other pre-“Pointillist” blocks feature aurochs and rhinoceroses.
Image courtesy Randall White et. al, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2017.02.001Newly discovered Aurignacian engraved blocks from Abri Cellier: History, context and dating

The most famous Pointillist painting is probably Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” It’s beautiful. Painting by Georges Seurat

The most famous Pointillist painting is probably Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” It’s beautiful.
Painting by Georges Seurat

Discussion Ideas

 

  • How are 38,000-year-old limestone blocks similar to 19th-century art?
    • Well, they’re both French … The blocks were discovered at the archaeologically rich cave sites in the French region of Dordogne. Pointillism was born in the artistically rich capital of Paris. (France itself did not exist, of course, when the prehistoric artists were carving their stones. Still. Beautiful art has a long history in the region.)
    • As in Pointillism, the prehistoric blocks create distinct images with tiny dots. In this case, the dots are (generally) not painted, but carved as series of cupules. Cupules are tiny, cup-shaped markings that resemble the hollowed-out dots on domino pieces.

 

  • How did ancient artists create the cupules on the “Pointillist” pieces?
    • According to Smithsonian, “we know the prehistoric pointillist technique must have been a labor-intensive process.” This suggests that the process or product of the technique must have been very important to the cave-dwellers.
      • First, the artists would have smoothed the rough surface of the limestone block with a harder stone, such as quartzite.
      • Then, they used a more sophisticated, pointed or narrow tool to carve the cupule. “In the case of the woolly mammoth,” Smithsonian says, “the engraver made more than 60 individual punctuations and then altered the edge of the rock by grinding it away to make a notch for the neck.”
    • When using the “Pointillist” technique on the walls of caves, artists did not necessarily use carved cupules. Instead, “the image was made by applying paint to the palm of the hand, then pressing the circular smudge into the wall repeatedly, until the palm-sized “points” created an image.

 

  • How is “prehistoric Pointillism” distinct from the real thing?
    • We know a great deal about Pointillism and its practitioners, but next to nothing about the ancient artists of Dordogne.
      • Pointillism was concerned with new, scientific understanding about the way humans process and perceive light. (Watch Sunday in the Park with George to see how this translates to the stage; it’s hard to choose one song.) Pointillist paintings were displayed in salons and museums, and sold to wealthy patrons.
      • Neolithic art may have had the same concerns about perception and appearance, and also may have been displayed for the public and high-ranking members of society. Or it could have been kept by the artists. Or it could have served a spiritual function. We just don’t know.

 

TEACHERS TOOLKIT

Smithsonian: Prehistoric Pointillism? Long Before Seurat, Ancient Artists Chiseled Mammoths Out of Dots

Wonderopolis: What is Pointillism?

Nat Geo: Prehistoric Life in Dordogne collection

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