Picasso Quotes and Primitive Art

Picasso is quoted as saying, or allegedly quoted as saying;


We have invented nothing new”, after seeing the cave paintings at Lascaux France.

After Altamira, all is decadence”, when he exited the infamous caves in his native Spain.


Curiously there are no official cited sources for Picasso to have ever uttered the above two quotes. When you research both quotes, you will find variants and subtle word changes, but essentially you can find numerous sources that redact these quotes. Whether he said something similar (or not) is not the point of my discussion and I am not about to challenge the quotes validity. His body of work in painting and sculpture does mirror the prehistoric cave images in some pieces. He possessed two reproductions of the, “Venus of Lespugue”, and is cited as saying the following:


In reality, we know very little. What is conserved in the ground? Stone, bronze, ivory, bone, sometimes pottery. Never wood objects, no fabric or skins. That completely skews our notions about primitive man. I don’t think I’m wrong when I say that the most beautiful objects of the “stone age” were made of skin, fabric, and especially wood. The “stone age” ought to be called the “wood age.” How many African statues are made of stone, bone, or ivory? Maybe one in a thousand! And prehistoric man had no more ivory at his disposal than African tribes. Maybe even less. He must have had thousands of wooden fetishes, all gone now”.

Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 92-102 of Conversations with Picasso by Brassaï, translated by Jane Marie Todd, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1999 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. Originally published as Conversations avec Picasso text and photographs © Gilberte Brassai and Editions Gallimard, 1964, 1997.


So the argument that Picasso was only minimally influenced by prehistoric art is a realm of discourse that I dare not to tread in. Picasso was influenced by prehistoric art. He was a man of art and knew that prehistoric artisans would have created art from skin, fabric and wood. And these are the organic elements of art that unfortunately cannot be dug up by archeology—they are gone! So the theater of speculation and postulation is the only way to approach the subject. What did the Palaeolithic art, made from skin, fabric and wood resemble?

  1. By my unofficial count, there are (+/-) 200 distinct Venus figurines made from bone, stone, antler and ivory. If archeology has only discovered 10% to 15% (albeit 10% to 15% may be highly generous) then it should stand to reason that there were a significant number of figurines carved from wood. The Venus figurines could have been easily reproduced in wood and possessed by many. The first knock off industry we created. The bone, stone, antler and ivory pieces would definitely be of more value. Palaeolithic humans would have been able to discern the value between the types. Trading five wooden figurines for one made from mammoth Ivory…easy S&P.
  2. Rupestrian drawings, (of art, done on rock or cave walls) did they have their first renditions on bark, fabrics and skins? S&P says yes. Practise makes perfect. Do your rough sketch on a hide or fabric before transferring it to the cave walls. Safe once again to speculate that one tribe may have had a campsite adorned in paintings, while another camp did not possess the artisan/shaman individuals to create great images. Trading art for food…another plausible S&P.
  3. The artist and his or her ability to create good and bad art probably affirmed their status in the tribe. Was the task of hunting and gathering left to others, and the artist allowed to muse and hone their craft with tribal support? The first elite members of early civilization? Did artisan tribes exist that traded with a network of tribes? Food for figurines and wall hangings? There are many examples of adornment items discovered in the tells throughout the habitable Palaeolithic. Countless necklaces have been discovered. Art. Was it the first form of commerce? S&P says yes.


The circumstantial evidence seems clear. Art, similar art (copies), in multiple forms spread across the Palaeolithic for 25,000 years. If not the first, one of the earliest forms of commerce was “Art”. A comment absent of evidence, but a plausible comment none the less.


The “2” Original Spiritualities

The “2” Original Spiritualities


Observing a timeline affords some interesting speculations. It is interesting to observe the immense collection of Venus figurines that have been found throughout Europe and Asia. While there are a few examples of Venus figurines that date back more than 200,000 years ago, most of them were made between 40,000 and 12,000 years ago. For the most part, the vast majority depict an exaggerated feminine form. There are figurines of males and some children, but the numbers found to date are predominantly mature female forms. Why carve figurines that collectively portray obesity, pregnancy and steatopygia? In prehistoric times women did not live much past 30, so examples of obesity would have been rare. What does this collection tell us? Is this a clue to the original spirituality? The venerated form of the pregnant female suggests what? Venerated is a fair term to use because these figurines are found over a large portion of the habitable Palaeolithic, but seem to come to an end in the Mesolithic. Why did the practise of carving an exaggerated feminine form come to an end as we developed more permanent settlements and eventually cities? Were they early pornographic art? Not likely, but it cannot be ruled out. The creator of the piece may have carved it for his or her own personal pleasure. Fertility icons are a plausible explanation. Palaeolithic humans would have been marvelled as we can be today with the pregnant female. Additional hands in the tribe would have been a great enhancement to the tribe’s survival. What would be of more importance to tribal survival, another male or a child bearing female? Were they depictions of a Mother Goddess or an early form of currency between nomadic tribes? There is evidence that they were displayed. The majority of the figurines have no feet. A common feature is a tapering of the legs to a point for sticking into an earthy base. Thus to say that they were venerated idols is a plausible explanation and an assessment that must find its way to the top of the explanation chart versus all other claims. After researching all the Venus figurine information available, I have come to the conclusion that this was one of the two original spiritualities.


I personally approve of Edouard Piette’s 1892 adopted term of “Venus Figurines” to denote the distinct stone, bone, ivory and clay artifacts of this 25,000 year Palaeolithic epoch. Call them something else…why? To this person’s mind and eyes they are beautiful, universally very similar and they were not used as tools. They were definitely portable and an obvious prized possession of the owner. Reasons to define them by some other term are just semantics best left un-discussed.


The second spirituality involves food. Also found throughout Europe and Asia over the same epoch (40,000 to 12,000) are cave paintings of the fauna of the day. Mostly the megafauna that is now extinct. Fauna is painted on top of fauna. The artistic quality in a large number of them is stunning. The animal form is portrayed magnificently by the great artisans of that epoch. Beautiful renditions of bison, deer and mammoths adorn walls of caves that would have required amazing artistic skill and technological ability to bring light to the dark depths of these caves. Rarely is the full human form displayed. Many examples of a stencilled hand or a stick form of a human are portrayed. The larger animals were revered. The artistic creator was painting his or her idols. And this makes perfect sense to a Palaeolithic tribe whose survival depends on the ability to provide for the tribe. A counter argument recently put forth by archeologists points to the evidence found in the strata of several of these famous caves that the bones of the animals consumed were small fauna—not the mega fauna displayed on the cave walls. I would argue that the bones of the mega fauna had a greater purpose outside the cave. They were used for creating shelters and a host of other tools. Left to the elements, most of these bones would become decomposed soil. Smaller fauna would have been easier to catch, kill and consume. Take a rabbit snack deep into a cave, versus a leg of auroch, plus painting supplies and lighting. Easy counter argument for the lack of megafauna bones in the cave floor strata.


 FOOD! Food and the pregnant female were the original two spiritualities. What supplanted these two spiritualities? I’ll leave that topic open for future discussion.