Moulin’s ‘Prehistoric Painting’

Today I want to start addressing the issue of defining what the term ‘spiritual’ means from the point of view of those who are involved in archaeology.

How about this, from the author of ‘Prehistoric Painting, Raoul-Jean Moulin:

“We recognize today that a certain clumsiness in the hypothetical ‘naturalism’ of Paleolithic art is the expression of a reality which is more complex than we suppose.”

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In other words, he is pointing out that the lack of skill apparently demonstrated in the cave paintings of Lascaux, Chauvet and other sites, is not lack of skill at all, but a deliberate stylistic attempt to portray the world as the artist saw it.  Moulin is quite clear throughout his book that he does not view the Paleolithic artist as in any way less developed as a human being than we are today.  This is why from my point of view, it is so compelling to go back to the very first instances of human involvement with art.  Moulin argues that the artist 15,000 years ago, or even 30,000 years ago, and possibly older, has the same basic human makeup as we do.  They were not half human, or brute savages.

That was written in 1965, however.  What do archaeologists make of that supposition today?  Are we wrong to think of ancient mankind as fully human?  Is the popular conception of the grunting cave man a more accurate one?  What has archaeology discovered since the 1960’s which would illuminate this debate?


As an artist, I look at the paintings in the caves (via my computer) and I am amazed at the level of skill required to make these works, often in the darkest and most inaccessible of places; at the understanding revealed of the natural world that is portrayed; of the expression of the complex relationships existing between humankind and the animal kingdom, and the sheer beauty and expressive quality of the figures involved.  If nothing else, these artists were concerned to capture much more than the mere physical realities of the world around them.

Moulin goes on to say:

“All interpretations proposed since the beginning of the century – of the ritual image of magical ceremonies … – are singularly lacking in daring.  They are generally confined to conceding some magical activity to Paleolithic man, even a religious activity, by carefully compressing the ‘savage’ aspect of his behaviour, but they refuse him an essential factor the ability to think and to act which he had conquered from nature, to develop his powers and make his presence felt.”


I find these comments fascinating.  Here Moulin is suggesting that art was being made in order to revel in the abilities the artist had over and above those demonstrated by the animals he observed.  His (or hers?) innate superiority over the animal kingdom includes the inclination and the skill to make art, something which relates to the world of the artist, but also conveys what the artist sees, feels, believes, loves or hates about it all.  By doing so he or she is making their presence felt in the world, which sounds like a very contemporary reason to me.  Has the basic human makeup actually changed much as civilisation has developed?  Has art a different part to play in the life of the artist today?  Ancient art seems to demonstrate that very little, if anything, has changed at all.  Then, unless I am ignorant of new findings, I conclude that this spiritual activity of making art has existed for as long as humankind itself, and I am part of a breathtakingly long tradition.



One thought on “Moulin’s ‘Prehistoric Painting’

  1. What a very exciting and thought provoking satement which could be transferred to cover all the basic human gifts and abilities!

    WOW!! What a profound link to our ancient ancesters . . . . . . .

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