Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 27, 2023
Maria Stavrinaki Transfixed by Prehistory: An Inquiry into Modern Art and Time Trans Jane Marie Todd Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022. 448 pp.; 78 b/w ills. Hardcover $35.00 (9781942130659 )

In 2007 a popular science book was published, The World without Us, that considered how long it would take for the signs of civilisation to disappear if, by some instantaneous cataclysm, all living humans suddenly vanished. The author, Alan Weisman, suggested that after a few centuries, nature would have reclaimed nearly everything, and then went on to speculate about a distant future in which all human history would be reduced to a layer, just a centimetre or so deep, in the geological record. The book was one of many that have shown a fascination with civilizational apocalypse, motivated by recognition of the growing reality of the climate emergency. It thereby exemplified a peculiarly modern concern with time, in which recorded history was reduced to a fraction of an instant, set against a temporal scale of periods of almost unimaginable duration. It was a stance that gave rise to the now commonplace notion of the Anthropocene, a term coined just over twenty years ago by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer.

This shift in temporal perspective is the main focus of Maria Stavrinaki’s engaging study, Transfixed by Prehistory: An Inquiry into Modern Art and Time. At its core is a study of the impact of the discovery of prehistoric art in the mid-nineteenth century. However, rather than outlining the competing theories of archaeologists, it examines how the encounter with prehistory compelled a transformation in the artistic and historical imagination. The discoveries of prehistoric images completely upturned theories that saw abstract ornament as the origin of art. Consequently, many commentators were reluctant to accept the antiquity of, for example, the cave paintings of Altamira. Many were also challenged by the immense stretches of time involved in contrast to the limited purview of traditional art history, which placed its beginnings no further back than ancient Egypt. Yet, Stavrinaki argues, the ground had already been prepared with the development of geology.

The publication in 1830 of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology indicated the immense antiquity of the earth. As Lyell became more widely read, attempts followed at “domesticating” time, imposing structures of periodization and rendering its strangeness manageable. Geological time was “narrativized” with, for example, images of slow continuity or of sudden catastrophes (borrowed from biblical and mythical narratives of ancient times).

Geological findings posed the question of where to locate human history. Human and geological history seemed to operate on entirely incompatible timescales, but the result was not two different histories but rather, Stavrinaki notes, an internalization of geological time. Humans were now part of geological history: “this internalization ended up opening the abyss of time in the depths of man himself . . .  ” (49). It was a conceptual shift that would prove to be immensely productive in the visual arts, and Stavrinaki explores artworks, from Cézanne’s Bibémus Quarries (1895) to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), that explored the sedimentations of the earth and geological time, in which “the tragic entropy of human history is given metaphoric expression and which explore the dread of a world without a human presence” (107).  

Geology provided more than just an analogy however, for discoveries of human remains and prehistoric artefacts demonstrated that humans were themselves part of the geological record. For Victorian anthropologists, the “savages” of Australia and Africa were living fossils, yet while such metaphoric language was embedded in colonial and racial hierarchies, it also “gave life” to the ancient objects and images that prehistoric archaeologists were digging up and extricated them from the “kingdom of the dead,” as Stavrinaki puts it (49). Hence, she notes that “the conditions were created for the subsequent century of speculation over prehistoric cultures, for if the ‘savages’ of the present were prehistoric leftovers, then, conversely, our prehistoric ancestors were the ‘savages’ of the past” (130-37). Theories proliferated about the purpose of prehistoric artefacts, often drawing on ethnological source material. Wilhelm von Wundt, for example, speculated on the relation between prehistoric artefacts and art, and the acquisition of language; for others they were connected to primitive magic. Further, late nineteenth-century naturalism meant that the abnormal was “normalized” and the abyss separating distant ancestors from the present was filled. As Stavrinaki details prehistoric Venus figurines were subjected to physical measurement and the panoply of tools employed by physical anthropology to establish their relationship to present-day populations (156-57). In 1890 Paul Richer sculpted The First Artist that imagined some distant prehistoric predecessor: a muscular, classical, male nude. He thereby collapsed all sense of difference between present and past. Finally, scenes of prehistoric life, with an especial emphasis on hunting, became a popular artistic genre. Some artists built up entire careers on the production of ‘’realist" paintings of this kind which continued into the mid-twentieth century.

Prehistoric art and society were a screen onto which were projected all kinds of fantasies about the past and in which the present saw itself mirrored. This applied not only in the case of those who sought to familiarize the unfamiliar, but, as Stavrinaki argues, also in the work of modernist thinkers and artists, who used it as a vehicle for the articulation of their visions of discontinuity, and the simultaneity of the non-simultaneous. Prehistory assumed a similar function to the primitive, in which fantasies of regression were played out. The primitivist thematics of Matisse’s Joy of Life (1905–06) were about a utopia of prehistory. This connection was first suggested by Jack Flam, and Stavrinaki also points out that the painting coincided with publication of papers speculating on the origins of art, and authors elaborated on the possibilities of prehistoric aestheticism.

Prehistoric art and culture could serve opposed ends. In the nineteenth century they had provided powerful illustrations of ideas of evolution and the immensity of the time periods involved. Yet for modern artists such as Matisse, parallels between the “primitive” and “prehistoric” served an opposite goal, that of dismantling evolutionary ideas and introducing ideas of the asynchronous. Yet there were also differences between the two concepts. Primitives were specific peoples, locatable to a place and time; prehistoric ancestors were indeterminate and hence better suited to function as symbols of the universal human condition. The analogy between primitive and prehistoric was critiqued, but not always in enlightened ways. Max Raphael, as Stavrinaki points out, declared that whereas contemporary “savages” seemed incapable of development, the archaeological record showed that prehistoric peoples were “progressive peoples” (192) with the production of tools of ever-increasing refinement. In his essays on Lascaux, Georges Bataille came to a similar conclusion. Stavrinaki does not dwell on the possibility but the willingness to draw such a distinction was clearly rooted in racial prejudice: even if they came from Africa, the painters of Lascaux or Altamira were, in a distorted sense, viewed as “European” ancestors who, despite the massive temporal gulfs, were related to the present.

As Stavrinkai informs us, Neolithic (in contrast to Palaeolithic) culture was the screen for further projections, and it was seen as having a particular affinity with modernity. It was possible to wonder about the societies that had produced the highly refined arrowheads, axes and artworks, which were the products of self-conscious artifice in contrast to the seemingly “instinctual” workmanship of the Palaeolithic. Above all, the Neolithic was interpreted through the lens of a very modern preoccupation: revolution. It was viewed as a victory over the underdeveloped state of Palaeolithic ancestors. The timescale of tens of thousands of years renders talk of revolution absurd, but the trope was adopted by numerous authors. The idea still circulates. We might consider Stephen Mithen in this context, a widely respected palaeoarchaeologist who has attributed the development of art making to a cognitive “revolution” that took place some seventy thousand years ago and the idea is still commonly stated and reaffirmed (The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion and Science, London: Phoenix, 1998). The quality of Neolithic art lent itself to all kinds of inferences about the prehistoric economy, religion, politics, and social structure. For authors like Herbert Read, it also signalled a creative leap in aesthetic sensibility. Stavrinaki, rightly, does not question such patterns of inference; many of them are still the most plausible explanations of Neolithic art and cultural development. However, in these and other similar accounts we can see, once again, a practice of projection. The makers of Stonehenge were “modern,” and such accounts serve to enhance that sense of affinity of prehistory and the present. Moreover, if Palaeolithic culture functioned as a universal symbol, Neolithic lent itself to appropriation in the service of racial and nationalist ideologies. Max Verwoern (1863–1921), for example, tried to identify a “Nordic” Neolithic plastic art; Frederik Adama von Scheltema (1846–99) even distinguished between Nordic Neolithic and “southern” Palaeolithic art, as Stavrinaki details (180-82).

Prehistory was a means of rehearsing ideas and concerns about the present, and Stavrinaki concludes the book with a consideration of its renewed interest after 1945. As humans were confronted with the possibility of nuclear annihilation, prehistoric art and culture could provide a potent focus for speculation about the origins and fate of the human species. This brings us back to the ruminations with which this review began. Current conditions of war in eastern Europe notwithstanding, the greatest threat is the likelihood of environmental and climactic catastrophe. The rise of interest in the Anthropocene parallels the preoccupation with prehistory that has coursed through twentieth-century art and thought. Stavrinaki’s book does us all an inestimable service in highlighting the meanings that have been attributed to it and the motivations that have lain behind them.

Matthew Rampley
Masaryk University, Brno