The Unreliable Book of Art History – Chapter 3: The Lion Man, the First Artist, and the Great Lady

hohlenstein-stadel or the hollow cave barn in germany where the lion-man, the first example of human art was found.

Hohlenstein-stadel – The cave in which the Lion Man figurine was found.

The Lion Man, The First Artist, and The Great Lady

(A Story)

c. 35ka to c.40ka.

He loved crafting things. As a child he would take a piece of wood and use a knife to carve it into people and animals and his mother would store them in her sack. She never threw anything away, which in a way, was a good thing, because as he became better, he saw her trading his sculptures for meat and sometimes even for sewing needles.

As he grew up, he realized that he was different from other boys his age. While they were boisterous and loved to go mammoth hunting, he liked to stray and watch. He would climb a tree and watch the action – and then he would carry a picture of it in his mind. He would draw it on the ground for the women who stayed at the cave and waited for the men to return with their prize.

So when the Great Lady came to him and told him that he would be excused from hunting so that he could sculpt the Lion-man, he couldn’t believe his luck. The offer was unprecedented in the history of his tribe.

“What about the bones and tusks, and the tools that I would need,” he had asked.

“You will get the material,” she had replied, “you can design your tools yourself.”

And so he had sat outside the entrance to their cave where the women cooked and talked and laughed – and under the Juniper tree, he set out his tools. His precious carving tools included a flint chisel, a burin, a piece of mammoth skin, a few stones to soften the hard edges that the burin and the chisel would leave behind.

It was a tough job and the women were amused. They didn’t think that such a big carving was possible.

“Will its head look really look like a lion’s?” one of the women asked.

He was wary about it too. He hadn’t seen it up close. All he remembered was the general shape – and he hoped that he would be able to reproduce it.

“I think it will,” he replied.

“The Great Lady will like it, I am sure,” his mother grinned at the tusk that he had soaked in water for softening. She still had her front teeth and her smile. He smiled back, then took out the tusk from the puddle and started work.

–0–

He kept a count of how many times the Sun had gone down since he had begun work by accumulating the seeds of the juniper tree in the corner of the room where he kept his tools for they were precious and used for creating the divine sculpture. The chamber was lit only by fire that the Great Lady carried in a bowl, and nobody went inside, except to look at the divine fire and be blessed.

Today, after ten fists full of Juniper seeds, the precious statue was finally done. It stood shining under the morning Sun mesmerizing everyone who looked at it. “The head of the statue,” confirmed the hunt-leader, “looked exactly like the head of a lion.”

They marveled at how he who had never fought a lion could bring about such likeness and how he could make the head look like it belonged to the statue. They looked at it with awe.

Then the Great Lady came out, leaning on a stick. She came right to the place where the statue was and bend a little to pick it up. She examined it by turning it left and right, and when she was satisfied, she looked at him with a benign smile.

The Lowenstein figure or the Lion Man - Material: Mammoth Ivory.

The Löwenmensch figure or the Lion Man – Material: Mammoth Ivory.

“This Lion-man will now be the source of our power. It shall now forever reside within the fire-room.”

The men and women jumped up and down and swung sideways to share their happiness and celebrate the momentous occasion. Then they all followed the Great Lady inside the cave.

He sat under the juniper tree, feeling oddly strange and empty. He had lived with that statue for such a long time, and now it had been taken away from him. He was glad that he would see it everyday, but now he would never get to touch it or caress it, or add another detail to it. It was no longer his.

He didn’t know that 35k years later, his creation shall be called the first known piece of art and become the origin for the art history of the world.

But he was an artist, and he didn’t care.

Here are the previous two chapters of this book:

The Unreliable Book of Art History – Chapter 2: The Point of Origin – the Lion Man.

First, I must save my hide, so please bear with the disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER

These posts aren’t meant to be educational – they merely present the view of an artist. In fact, a specific artist, that’s yours truly. This is why I request you to consider these posts as a work of fiction inspired by historical facts. I am not sure if I can keep the historical facts correct to the t, and I take no responsibility if you fail an exam because you thought you could use my posts to study.

Remember that I am not an art historian, an art critic, or even an art teacher. I am an artist – and in this book (if it becomes one,) I’ll be presenting the history of art from my own tainted and distorted viewpoint.

The Upper Paleolithic Period (or the time between 50K to 10K years ago,) was the time when invading homo sapiens had gotten rid of the neanderthals in Europe and they were doing new stuff all the time. This is why between 1900 and 1950, archaeologists found art done by them. This art was created in material that was easily available at that time, namely animal bones, mammoth tusks, wall-paintings and so on.

Two Important Artworks of the Upper Paleolithic Period:

In my opinion two extremely important works that have been discovered by archaeologists and that may be classified as art are:
The Lion Man (made of mammoth tusk)
The Willendorf Venus (made of limestone colored with red ochre)

An Extra, Non-arty Nugget:

And two important inventions of this time are:
• Sewing and shoes (Check out a 50,000 year old needle.)
• Flutes made of bones (Check out some paleolithic flutes.)

We aren’t really interested in the inventions (except when they led to art,) so quite selfishly, we’ll only speak about the Lion Man and the Willendorf Venus.

Putting the Lion Man First (and why?)

Lion Man: The Beginning of Human Art

While everyone else may disagree with me, I think that the Lion Man or the Lowenmensch figurine, which stands a little more than a foot tall, is the first example of human art. In my opinion, the timeline of art history begins with the Lion Man.

Here’s the Lion Man

The loewenmensch figurine - or the Lion Man - carved from Mammoth Tusk - Upper Paleolithic

The Lion Man: Image Credit:  Thilo Parg / Wikimedia CommonsLicense: CC BY-SA 3.0.

But why is Lion Man Art?

My reasons are simple: The Lowenmensch figurine is an example of human imagination (thus creativity) used to create a visual expression, that has both aesthetic and emotional appeal. The cave paintings are depiction of what was “seen” – and so there isn’t enough imagination, individual or collective, that would make me see them as art.

(Check out Chapter 1 for the definition of art and art history.)

And Why not the zillion Venuses? Why aren’t they art?

Note: Before the term Venus floods your mind with images from renaissance paintings and you start imagining slim and beautiful young women with streaming blonde hair – Read about the Paleolithic Venuses so that you and I are on the same page.

Weren’t the Venuses a Product of Human Imagination?

As an artist I believe that the Venuses (including the Willendorf Venus) weren’t a product of imagination either – mostly because the way their bodies are sculpted, you need to have seen the effect of gravity on a corpulent human body to be able to sculpt that. The Venus of Hohle fels is more from imagination, I think – and yet, it could also be an inability to reproduce the real effect of corpulence, aging, and gravity, merely due to artistic incompetence.

But Willendorf Venus? Isn’t it art? Everyone says it is.

Here’s the Willendorf Venus:

Venus of Willendorf - Paleolithic Art - Figurine of Limestone

Venus of Willendorf: Image Credit: Oke / CC BY-SA

Ok. Let me call Willendorf Venus art but for another reason. I’ll call it art because of its apparent uselessness.  Remember Oscar Wilde had once said: “All Art is Useless.” Since we love to take quotes of famous men and women as gospel truth, we can use Oscar Wilde’s statement to confirm that Willendorf Venus is indeed art.

Caricature Portrait Reflection Picture of Oscar Wilde Dorian Gray Alfred Douglas and Caliban.

“All art is useless.” – Oscar Wilde

The Willendorf Venus depicts an unusual skill of execution – and for the reasons we call Portraiture art – we can (and should) also call the Willendorf Venus a piece of art.

So is the Lion Man a better example of pre-historic art than the Willendorf Venus?

Yes, I believe it is. The head of Lion placed on the body of a man is clearly symbolic and it requires certain degree of imagination fueled by thought. That the lions and the sabers could bring a mammoth down, is something that would make humans revere the Lion and want to be “like” a lion, and from that emanates the creativity that makes such a figurine possible.

This is why for me, dear readers, the art history timeline starts at the Lion Man – and this is why this book and its contents are quite unreliable.

The next chapter (Chapter 3) will tell us the story of the Lion Man’s creation.

Read “Chapter 1: Defining Art History and Answering the Question of Time” here.