Prehistoric Masking

- Blog; art history books

I finished rereading Scott McCloud’s great book Understanding Comics recently. Like a good conversation with an intelligent friend, it keeps giving even after it’s over. It got me thinking about a few things. One such thoughts was about prehistoric cave art.

In chapter 2, the book argues (comics style) that simplified or iconic pictorial representations of things are more relatable, more accepting of us projecting ourselves onto them. We make a face out of a circle with two dots and a line inside of it, then let our imagination fill in the blanks. Since iconic representations are abstract, they are universal. This simple cup can stand in for the one on your desk, that rectangle can be your computer monitor and the stick figure is you, at least for a moment. The reason this is possible, according to the book, is that we do not see ourselves. My face is a mask that is visible to others, but not to me, so my mental image of my own face is very abstract. Now imagine if you are presented with a photo-realistic picture of someone, it would be much harder to identify with that picture. We might not see our own face much, but we see everyone else’s. A realistic picture is specific, not universal, and it makes you aware of its specificity just like you are aware of the details in the appearances of others. We “mask” ourselves in iconic images, and perceive otherness in realistic ones.

Now consider stone age cave paintings. Some of these paintings contain realistic depictions of animals, but whenever human figures are present they are pretty much stick figures (check out the pictures in this Wikipedia article on cave painting). Here’s a quote from Ian Tattersall’s Becoming Human:

[W]hile human images are commoner in Ice Age art than generally thought, they are almost invariably significantly less realistic than those of other animals—especially on the cave walls.

Well, you see, that gives me ideas. Is this very early art reflecting the same dichotomy McCloud talked about? In an image of iconic hunters pursuing realistic animals, can we assume that the artists instinctively represent themselves with simple lines while the animal—the other—is detailed and natural-looking? I’d like to know more about that.