Something washes over me when I pick up a piece of charcoal and draw. It’s primal; I feel the distant call of thousands and thousands of years of ancestry. Maybe it’s because charcoal comes from one of our first technologies: the harnessing of fire.
We make paintings and drawings to claim our existence in the world. This is most evident in cave paintings. They are a primeval psychological expression: of grappling with existence in a world vast, mysterious, and inexplicable. This work is not about taming the natural world, as is most later European art; these animals are not “tamed” for our use. This work is about survival; this is why they are so powerful.
For 35,000 years the aesthetics in these paintings were handed down from generation to generation; there is too much consistency in the work to prove otherwise. Think about that for a moment. These artists seemed not to care about “progress.” (Was progress even a notion they had?) I’ve heard people whine that nothing new has been done in the art world for decades. Decades? Compare that with 35,000 years!
We know about geological change taking place over eons. And yet, on the human scale, we think of 35,000 years as an eternity. We think of the paintings as ancient; yet the cave that has been painted upon is virtually unchanged. So when looking at cave paintings one is presented with the paradox of time: thousands of generations passing in the blink of an eye of Mother Earth.
Caves have no right angles. Did Paleolithic man know what a rectangle was? How often would he see a straight line? Perhaps the only time he witnessed a straight line was when looking out onto the ocean’s horizon. Or maybe he noticed the path of a falling object described a straight line. I look up from the rectangular screen of my laptop. I see the rectangle of the doorway into my kitchen; the rectangular windows letting light in. I inhabit a world of rectangles. Yet they are so ubiquitous I am unaware of them. At times I’ve wondered what an alien would see if they were to visit one of our museums. I think they would wonder why there are so many rectangles on the walls.
I was going to write that we’re prisoners of the rectangle. But something is giving me pause. When I look at a Mondrian a calm comes over me. I’m witnessing the sacredness of the horizontal and vertical line. These straight lines hint at the perfection of physics, or at least how we experience physics: the up and down force of gravity; the horizontal line of stasis and rest. The right angle is a symbol of the sacred union of the activity of gravity and the stasis of rest.
In cave painting we’re witnessing the mystery and wonder of the physical world. In Mondrian we’re witnessing the mystery of the laws that govern the physical world. The subject is irrelevant. What is relevant is the mystery. The awe. The incomprehension and the inexplicable.
The finite mind tries to grasp the infinite and is left peering into the paradox of existence.