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WiseGuy: The Author's Blog

The Painted Caves of Southern France, Part VIII: The Venus figures

Three Venuses: From left to right: Dolni Vestonice (29-25,000 BP. Venus of Willendorf (40-30,000 BP). Venus from Lespuge (26-24,000 BP).

by Richard W. Wise

copyright: 2022

 

Paleo artists did not limit themselves to drawing, painting and bas-relief; also produced three-dimensional sculpture. These include the famous "Venus" or Dolni figures. The oldest thus far, the Venus of Hohle Fels, dated to the Aurignacian Period (30-40,000 BP), was found in Germany.

 

These are sculptures of women. Many, though not all, are headless and naked with wide hips, bulging stomachs, legs and distinctly defined vulvas. This has led many experts to view them as votive or fertility objects or perhaps goddesses.

 

There are stylistic similarities, but they are not all the same. There are fat ones and skinny ones, compact and attenuated Venuses. Some are more, some less abstract. Some, particularly the French examples, are naked (naturally), but some, most notably those found in what is now Russia, are fully clothed. These Russian examples have been tagged: "Venuses in furs." The small statues range from Siberia to Northern Italy and are between 40,000-10,000 years old, attesting to an astonishing artistic continuity.
 
Like the work of Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore, and Louise Bourgeois---artists strongly influenced by cave art---they demonstrate a very sophisticated ability to reduce form from complex to simple while retaining the essential and evocative. 

 
This artistic sensibility was not limited to Western Europe or to the female figure. A recent discovery of a 13,500-year-old bird figurine at Linjin in Henan Province demonstrates a similar ability to capture the essential. Though not a representation of the human form, the artist who created this Paleolithic bird reduced and captured what Constantin Brâncuși called: "not the outer form but the idea, the essence of things." For Brâncuși, the abstract is the more real because it captures that essence.

The female form is a recurring figure in Western art. The Venus figures represent a high-water mark in Prehistoric art.
 
Next: The Art of the Neanderthals
 

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HISTORICAL NOVEL SOCIETY INTERVIEW: Richard Wise on launching The Dawning: 31,000 BC. (Expanded)

How would you describe this book and its themes in a couple of sentences?

 

The Dawning: 31,000 BC is a story about the deep past and a meditation on the present. Aside from the romance and adventure, the theme revolves around the development of human political and social culture which I contend is based on human nature, a nature which has not changed since the beginning of human history.

 

In contemporary literature, prehistory is often portrayed as an idyllic period, free of strife, where men and women were equal and there was magic in the air; the domain of Rousseau's noble savage. While an interesting theme, it is total fiction. In The Dawning, I have attempted to portray the people and the period as I believe it really was.

 

What attracted you to writing fiction about prehistory?

 

The magnificent 30,000-36,000-year-old paintings discovered in 1994 at Chauvet Cave in Southern France. The art is dynamic and sophisticated and tells of a culture which could hardly be called primitive.

You paint a vivid picture of daily life in prehistory: hunting, making fire, travelling, the weather, animals such as cave lions and hyenas. What kinds of research did you do for this story?

 

I took an archaeology course at University of Virginia, read about twenty-five books, everything from scholarly tomes to the Boy Scout Manual. There are a number of groups practicing experimental archaeology and there are published journals. I watched videos of fire making, flint knapping and spear throwing to name just a few.

 

Which research books did you pull off your shelf most often?

 

The Bulletin of Primitive Technology (experimental archaeology) was useful. I bought a set. Desdemaine-Hugon's Stepping Stones was another. Don's Maps and The Bradshaw Society were two very useful websites.

 

The shamans play significant roles in your story. How did you imagine your way into these characters and their influence in their communities?

 

The first shamans were tribal wise men. Often, they were the dreamers, the non-conformists, the tinkerers. Small groups of hunter/gatherers produced little surplus. Everyone had to, literally, pull their weight. No one was just wandering around, shaking rattles and mumbling to themselves.

 

I favor the Eastern European term, šamán and used it throughout The Dawning. "Shaman" carries with it a boatload of connotations—men in horned headdresses and painted faces, covered in feathers. These images conjure up something of an anachronism, a stereotype. I doubt that tribal wise men fit that image in these small mobile clans in earliest times. More likely, they earned their keep as part-time healers and storytellers.

 

Later we see shamans morphing into priests and then into priestly castes who claimed to influence the spirits but were essentially parasitic. In the historical development of culture they--along with the warriors--eventually took over and still rule. Osirus, Anubis, Enlil, Ahura Mazda--most of these made up dieties were worshipped far longer than Christianty has been around. Among these hunter/gatherers there was no surplus upon which a priestly class could feed and take root. 

 

Are there elements of your own life experiences that you have woven into your story?

 

Very little. My academic background is in philosophy. My views of human nature—which is pretty dark—definitely influenced my characterizations.

 

There is tension between the two half-brothers, Baal and Ejil. Do you have tricks for getting to know your characters?

 

No tricks. The experts tell us that these people were just like us. We share the same nature. So, analogies about the relationships of modern human siblings were useful.

 

Not so many novelists have chosen to write about the period of prehistory. Jean Auel, William Golding, Raymond Williams spring to mind. Have other prehistory novelists been significant for you?

 

Don't forget Jack London. I haven't read Williams. Auel's first book was brilliant though it's a bit dated given what we've learned through DNA studies and other discoveries over the last twenty years. Golding took on the impossible. How do you write close third person with characters who lack self-consciousness? Neanderthals did have a sense of self.

 

 

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