the first artists were women

I’m not saying that this topic is the topic that destroyed my art history career before it even got off the ground. I’m only saying that this is a topic I have wanted to revisit for at least 2 decades. You see, a fine arts career starts out as a very hopeful thing. Young artists and art historians are told they’re going to change the world with their art: Civilizations are remembered by their art! You’re a part of that! Hooray! Now get in line and don’t you be asking any pesky questions or we will CRUSH YOUR ART HISTORY DREAMS INTO OBLIVION.

But I digress.
I had my first art history class at the age of 16. My parents were not college educated and they did everything in their power to get me to a school district that would guarantee academic success. I went to a high school where we had majors. I was able to major in art! In art history, your lessons will start at the beginning, the neolithic.

In the beginning, humans lived in caves and ate raw food. Eventually they figured out how to make fire and cook their food. They brought fire into their caves and extended the daylight. Fueled by cooked protein, they could think about new and exciting things during the night time. And so they started to make art. 2 types of art, actually: stationary & mobile. Basically they did graffiti and made small trinkets to take around and were pretty much like we are today.

Sulawesi Cave art, roughly 75,000 years ago. I like to call this one “pet the goat.”

75,000 years ago the wall painting started.  Our ancestors painted some decorative things like dots and stripes, and also some representative shapes, like horses, birds, buffaloes and people. Somewhere along the way, early people also figured out they could carve into soft stones and animal bones, so they started decorating things to carry around. This is where things got tricky for me.

Ishango bone: 20,000 years ago someone wanted to tally 28 a few times.

In my first day of art history, the instructor showed us a slide. The title of the slide was “Man’s First Calendar?” Honestly, it did look like a counting-tool. I imagined pre-historic me holding it, rotating it in my hands moving between the 3 rows of lines like a paperless scroll.  I could see it being used as an abacus of sorts.  It was explained to us that this object was the first lunar phase calendar. I didn’t know any better so I raised my hand: so this was WOMAN’S first calendar, right? I mean, what man needs to know a 28 day cycle?

The comment went down like a lead balloon, glanced at and subsequently ignored. The lecture continued thusly: 

Early man had left his hand prints on the walls and drawn his prey- perhaps in a shamanistic ritual where the illustrated bison was stabbed to ensure the success of tomorrow’s hunt. He decorated his sacred space with painted recountings of the numbers in his tribe and how many horses they possessed. He made his ink from char, copper and ochre. Men men men, man man man, he he he.

He carved FERTILITY TOTEMS of pregnant women. I was left to wonder the “practical” purpose of these objectified objects. I had a few guesses, at least 3 of them pornographic.

There are lots of these statuettes, but the so-called Venus of Willendorf is probably the most famous. I would rather call her the Woman of Willendorf, but we will get to that in a moment. This little lady is incredibly famous! For example, I assembled the header image for this page from a google search for pop culture venus of willendorf

The sort of things I heard about this statue in the 1990s include: 

The Venus of Willendorf is an excellent example of neolithic fertility culture. Note her exaggerated breasts and stomach. Her small feet. She lacks any face or distinction- the sculptor puts an emphasis on child bearing qualities. 

The sculptor is notifying us of her place in society. 

These statuettes were shamanic and intended to promote fertility in the tribe.

The Venus of Willendorf: nothing to see here, just the first way to objectify women…

In art history, your classes will revisit topics. My initial college level art history class was very similar to the one I had in high school, just with more details and examples to memorise. So it was early in my time at Pratt Institute that I found myself getting reacquainted with Ms. Willendorf.

By this time I was a woman. I had begun to “fill out” as they say. My hips began to broaden and change the shape of my thighs and even how my mid-section fit together. I looked down at myself in the shower and thought about Willendorf. If I didn’t have a mirror and was trying to sculpt myself, I might look very similar. I could get the idea, especially the tiny feet. I could even account for the head having little detail. After all, no one can see her own head. Was it possible that Willendorf was a self portrait? I wrote an essay suggesting such only to have it returned with the generous offer to submit a paper on a different topic. Or with a different conclusion, I suppose. I capitulated because at the time I was to choose a college major. It was easy to just not choose art history when I was being offered painting, illustration, english literature and graphic design. It made art history seem less attractive, especially since I seemed to have contrarian opinions. The sensible fragment of my mind insisted it would be better for me to sit on my hands.

I went about my life and my education. Never far from my subconscious, Willendorf featured regularly in my work and I continued to visit the pre- Columbian section at the natural history museum. I kept drawing stick figures on the walls and thinking about my ancestors. Keith Haring’s “future primeval” became an obsession. I even made a few clay sculptures of myself in various perspectives, a numbered series titled “no goddess venus.” (Forgive the intentional lower case title, I was reading a lot of bell hooks at the time) 

One of the surviving “no goddess venus” statuettes – clay & acrylic, circa 1996.

I cannot remember the date, even approximately, when I first found the following paper, but it was certainly more than 10 years after its publication and it ROCKED MY WORLD.

According to these researchers, the venus figurines “represent ordinary women’s views of their own bodies.” Ordinary Woman Artist. Just like me! Using 2 point perspective, this paper imposes a lozenge (diamond) over various diagrams of the female statuettes, guiding the reader through a self-portraiture perspective on their creation. Here are some details on 2 point perspective if you are unfamiliar: You may find this information helpful in understanding the superimposed geometry examples below.

Woman statuette shapes with geometric superimposition of 2 point perspective, from the McCoid / McDermott paper.

2 photographic examples of perspective from the McCoid / McDermott paper.

Of course, there are also refutations, neatly summed up in this article, Self portraits or fertility symbols? Venus figurines of Upper-Paleolithic Eurasia,  which borrows some of images from the McCoid / McDermott paper. I do not find the arguments compelling. The synopsis cites a number of “goddess” statues that are not in the lozenge perspective. I would counter that if women were making self portraits, why would they not also make portraits of each other? 

Another argument suggests “that use of the lozenge perspective –or of any perspective at all for that matter– does not fit with other art of the paleolithic . That is, only primitive use of perspective is seen in paleo-art (…)” This is to assume that our ancestors hadn’t “figured out” perspective yet. I find that difficult to believe. While the ancestors certainly lacked the geometric tools and tricks many modern artists employ, their brains and ours are identical. I believe they were capable of making an aesthetic choice to work “flat” or “in perspective.” Certainly their imaginations would have been three dimensional. 

It’s also very easy for me to consider a system in which “flat” perspective goes on relatively flat cave walls and working “in the round” is for sculptures. My supposition here is buoyed by numerous examples of the integration of dimensional cave elements with linear drawings.

This cougar – venus combo is drawn along the relief of the wall at the Chauvet Cave.

I have noticed over the years the first women artists have begun creeping into the academic consciousness. Recently researchers have begun to conclude that most of the handprints we see in the caves belonged to women. “Shocking!” says one article: Cave Painting Women Confound Sexist Bloggers. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s been annoyed over the years with the lack of representation!

These recent studies compared the finger lengths in multitudes of ancient hand stencils and found a majority of them to be female. Women’s index and ring fingers tend to be the same length, whereas men tend to have a longer ring finger. It is likely that whomever left her handprint was also leaving other art on the walls.

The Cave of Hands, in Spain. Ancient graffiti that always makes me think “Jane was Here.”

Of course, it’s men who are often the researchers of these kinds of things and no researcher can be truly liberated from their own prejudices. A man can easily compute the lines on the Ishango Bone and say “lunar calendar,” but may not see the significance from that certain female perspective. I do not mean to say that women are being left behind maliciously or even intentionally. What I mean to assert is that a fundamental shift in our understanding could go a long way in unlocking a previously unexplored portion of our ancient history. Let’s stop leaving our sister ancestors out of the art history books and give their contribution a place in our collective story. It’s only been 75,000 years – it’s not too late.

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