I love the idea that art has a magical quality to it. When our ancient ancestors started painting, mark making, sculpting images, they believed there was some inherent magic that was embodied within the images they created.
By painting a wounded animal on a cave wall it would help them in the hunt, creating an image of an enemy and harming it also harmed the foe.These are sophisticated paintings, made by people rooted in their surroundings and closely connected to the land.
So were the earliest artworks more than just decoration for the cave or a way of adding some colour to the straw hut?
Not just decoration
These days pictures and sculptures are viewed as decorative objects, something to brighten a room, a thing that is nice to look at. However, in our past they were things of worship that had a definite purpose. The job of the art was to give the tribe strength and help to appease the gods.
By decorating sculptures and paintings by giving them recognisable features, primative painters instilled life in their creations. With the inclusion of eyes, a nose and mouth they believed gave a figure the ability to look out and take in its surroundings. Likewise poking the eyes out had the effect of blinding the person.
People had such a strength and faith in the magic of early art, that it was fervently understood that an object’s power could effect things. Art as a living, breathing, potent force, this also gave artists a special place in the society. The skill to carefully craft artworks for the tribe was a valuable and essential part of the groups daily routine.
They were teaching aids, passing on valuable information about the seasons, hunting and farming. Large totums were erected to record the tribes stories and painted tombs to prepare the dead for the afterlife. You would not go to all the effort of building a pyramid unless you fervently believed its power would return the departed god king to his celestial realm.
Magic in Modern art
Even today, wanton acts of vandalism against artistic images such as destroying the eyes on a painting would cause feelings of unease. Try sticking a pen through a photo of your favourite celebrity and you’ll feel wrong. The graven image has a strong connection to our ancient primative selves and art is still able to conjure up passionate emotions and deep feelings deep within our soul.
So when viewing primitive, native or tribal art, remember that as well as being a beautiful decorative image it is so much more and had a specific purpose too. Can it ward off storms, protect the crops or induce fertility? Who knows? However, our ancestors thought so and it would be rude not to take advice from our elders and betters