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Picasso Quotes and Primitive Art

December 11, 2013

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.

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2 Comments
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  2. Picasso was definately influenced by primitive art and cave art; just look at the mask-like faces of his Les Demoiselles D’avignon and other nudes, or his crude markings and expressions in Guernica. In fact I talk about about this common influences in my own blog: https://cjwaterfieldart.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/a-comparison-lascaux-and-guernica/

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