Monday, March 10, 2008

Impermanence III

Drawings of horses
Chauvet Cave, France

While passing out the chapter on Black and Brown from Victoria Finlay's book Color: A Natural History of the Palette to my drawing class last week, I noticed the section on Impermanence and decided to add it to my occasional posts on the subject. In fact, I've made a new category for Impermanence where you can read all of them.

Today, I'll excerpt that chapter in which Finlay writes about early mediums including charcoal, kohl, pencil and Conté.
"According to one Western classical legend, the first paint was black and the first artist female. When Pliny the Elder was writing his Natural History — a summary of everything available in the Roman marketplace and quite a few other things besides — he told a story of how the origin of art was found in epic love. After all, what better inspiration for art is there than passion? According to Pliny one of the first artists was a young woman in the town of Corinth in Greece who one evening was weepily saying good-bye to her lover before he set out on a long journey. Suddenly, between impassioned embraces, she noticed his shadow on the wall, cast by the light of a candle. So, spontaneously, she reached out for a piece of charcoal from the fire and filled in the pattern."
Finlay goes on to discuss modern theories of the earliest paintings and the discoveries of cave paintings in Niaux, Altamira, and Chauvet and the materials used then writes this section on Impermanence
"Would the maid of Corinth have gazed at her painting often after her lover's ship had left? If so, then I wonder whether it could have lasted until his return. On their own, without human observers to wonder at them, these ancient charcoal cave drawings — especially if mixed with glue of fat or blood or egg — can last for an ice age and through another 10,000 years of summer rains. But as soon as people find them and pay them any kind of attention the drawings start to fade, almost as if too much looking wears them out. Keeping one's work permanent is a perennial problem for all artists, but few people dare hope that the marks they have made can last for 15,000 years. And these paintings of the past, unprotected by varnish, but protected by their own stable environment, are vulnerable as soon as that environment changes. They were painted with ashes and they are returning to dust.

Anthropologist Desmond Morris described how he had first been entranced by the cave paintings at Lascaux a few years after their discovery, but when he returned four decades later he was disappointed. At first he wondered whether his memory was playing tricks with him, but later he learned from a report that it was not his memory but the paintings themselves which had faded, because so many people were entering the caves to see them. Shortly after that report was written, in the mid-1990s, the authorities closed Lascaux, and spent many millions of francs creating replica chambers to enable tourists to get an idea of the paintings without damaging them with the moisture from their breath. The trouble is, the true wonder of all these caves is not really in the accurate charcoal shapes of the bison, or even the shade of the ochres. It is that one day or night by torchlight, 15,000 years ago — or, in the case of Chauvet, 30,000 years ago — those rocks were once touched by artists. They were talking to each other in tongues we could not understand today, their minds were full of images and rituals and rules that we can hardly guess at, yet their messages from the other side of the Ice Age stretch toward us through their drawings. A reproduction of a cave in even the most tasteful of concretes and newly burned charcoals cannot even begin to reproduce that magic of communication across time — and the reminder that wherever and whenever men and women have lived, they have also painted."

— from Finlay Color: A Natural History of the Palette

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1 comment:

Bill Evertson said...

I've seen your insightful comments on both Mineke's and Laura's blog. While I love your past posts with the roads, (really loved Fri. post stormy clouds), Your musings here show how deeply you take your art. Best wishes.