Jill Cook


‘Papa, mira , toros pintados’. With these words a twelve year old girl María Sanz de Sautuola, later de Botín, drew her father’s attention away from the floor of the cave of Altamira where he was looking for stone tools and animal bones left by the inhabitants of the cave now known to have occupied the site some twenty thousand years ago.

What Marcelino saw in 1879 and subsequently published was a revelation for the history of art and humanity, but acceptance was slow to follow . At the time, most archaeologists dismissed the discovery as a forgery and ignored it. The paintings seemed modern and were misjudged as recent works like those of the contemporary impressionists with their dabbed applications of paint and blurred transitions of colour. Such modernity did not fit in with a view of human evolution that assumed people who lived as hunter gatherers without writing or architecture were not capable of perceiving and transforming their world through images. Placing modern western culture at the top of the evolutionary tree made the theory of evolution more acceptable and caused fewer disturbances to established attitudes on culture. Eighteenth and early nineteenth century learning had established the sculpture and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome as the beginning of art in the civilized world. The work of other ‘primitive’ people was considered as curious but not art and certainly beneath the notice of the cultured eye. Despite the eventual acceptance of Altamira in 1902, cave art and the discovery of much older sculptures and paintings, this history of art has generally remained the official version. It is time to challenge this version in the light of new interpretations of evolutionary history.

The Enlightenment view of art and aesthetics still fits the conceits of western culture over two and a half thousand years, but it is a model conceived from incomplete knowledge and understanding of the past and other societies. It assumes that people past and present who do not write, farm or build in stone are incapable of what we call art because they and their societies are less evolved. Although we now know that these people are fully modern with brains like our own, many anthropologists and archaeologists still consider their images and representations as purely functional objects used in rituals or ceremonies that should not be appreciated aesthetically because of their sociological purpose. It is argued that these objects should not be called ‘art’ because they are not made and displayed simply for an intellectual notion of aesthetics in cabinets, museums and galleries. This view is chauvinistic as what we call art within our own culture also has sociological functions. Equally, it is society and social needs that permit and enable the creative genius of certain individuals to flourish.

New readings of the archaeological evidence actually seem to suggest that the ability to make art was crucial within human evolution as it goes beyond words in revealing concepts that bring people together providing cohesion, collaboration and stability. Art often serves faiths, politics, power, revolutions, wealth and propaganda, as well as reflecting social status and the human condition throughout time. It always has sociological functions and, as in the distant past and in non-western societies, is no longer confined to great houses or institutions but is democratised in recognition of this role in public spaces and the mass media. Nevertheless, we still seem to overlook the most ancient and non- European creativity because we do not often look at ourselves as we, as anthropologists, look at others. Stimulated by social upheaval, wars, revolutions, as well as a new understanding of emotions, sexuality and the subconscious brought about in psychology and psychiatry, twentieth century movements in art broke away from historical traditions. Artists sought new artistic languages in which to express reality, the subconscious, our relationships with others and our place in the world. This has led to new forms and views of art that often depart from the traditional, historically accepted approaches into more self-conscious, primeval expressions of awareness.

The affinities we observe between twentieth century images and those of the end of the last Ice Age are not about influence or continuity they are perhaps about insecurities, feelings and intuitions that find expression in abstract or unnatural forms. The similarities in concepts and techniques of expression are produced by the fact that the minds at work have all been powered by the same complex modern brain that evolved slowly over two million years. From the time of the oldest stone tools, the sociological need to communicate and fix ideas in external forms by making things that not only function but look good has been a key to success and a selective factor in our evolution. In this sense, Duchamp’s challenge that art is what we say it is whether or not it incorporates normally valued skills such as the ability to draw and make things by hand, is redundant. Whether or not we can identify and relate exactly to its social and cultural context, what we recognise in the conviction, passion and intensity of a creation is what it is to be human at any particular moment. By displaying portable works of art made between 22,000 and 12,000 years in a gallery setting with modern works it is possible to appreciate this.

Art in the Age of Altamira is not an archaeological exhibition. Although the works on display were discovered by excavation, they are not shown in the usual way as fragments of evidence found among the stone tools, remains of animals used as food and plans of living areas and used to construct an extinct way of life. This is already well done in archaeological museums, notably the excellent presentation at Altamira itself. Instead, the purpose here is to show that the concepts and techniques of figurative and decorative art are still the same and that there was a concept of the aesthetic during the last ten thousand years of the last Ice Age to which, as modern humans with the same brain, we can still relate. In staging it, I am immensely grateful for the support of Paloma Botín, Trustee of the Fundación Botín and Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum. Many others have also contributed to its production. These include the ever patient Begoña Guerrica and Amaia Barredo Vales of the Fundación Botín, the designers Fernando and Fernando Riancho of Tres Diseño Gráfico and Dr Roberto Ontañon who advised on the Cantabrian material. In London, I am grateful to Rosalind Winton, Julia Howard and Marianne Eve who took on the work of administering the collaboration and organising the loans, as well as illustrator Stephen Crummy who prepared the drawn illustrations.

i B. Madariaga de la Campa, Sanz de Sautuola y el Descubrimiento de Altamira, Santander, 2000.

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