Thoughts & Insights

35,000 Years of Modern Art

It took millions of years of evolutionary development before, some 35,000 years ago, our ancestors began to paint the walls of caves at Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira and a great many other places in Europe and North Africa, caves where they sought protection from enemies at night and shelter from bad weather during the day. With only the most elementary means they created their wall paintings to eternalise what moved them, what they seen and lived through and what seemed so important to them that they had to commemorate it in images.

Today we call what they put on the cave walls art – prehistoric art, to be exact. It’s an art that seems just as familiar to a present-day viewer as it seems strange. It‘s strange because it’s free of everything that’s influenced the development of art over the past 3000 years, and in particular free of everything that drives today’s art market. Yet at the same time it’s also familiar because – perhaps precisely due to the absence of all such factors – it’s so immediate, so full of life and so moving that it could have been painted yesterday.


The only possible space in which such art could have been created during its time, a space which then also served as a shelter and a living space for our ancestors was itself a space that turned into a shelter for this art a few decades after the discovery of the first cave paintings. In contrast to all other works of art that were created much later on when humankind had become sedentary and that were all in some way or other state commissioned works of art intended for wide viewing, the earlier prehistoric works of art of our ancestors were created without commissions and payments, away from the light of day in the shadows. In a place of guarded intimacy.


So even when it’s no longer a question of protecting this intimacy but rather of protecting and conserving the original wall paintings themselves, it seems only logical that they should have been protected from the public gaze and should continue to be so. These caves housing the original wall paintings remain closed – fortunately closed to safeguard this art. Had they been opened to the inspection of the masses – which is nowadays the inevitable fate of anything that’s well worth seeing and “cool on Instagram” – they would have wretchedly decomposed. How marvellous that art can escape such a fate in these times!

Left: Paul Klee, Scenting Animal, 1930; Right: Joseph Beuys, Deer, 1956

Even photographs and films of these cave paintings were more than enough to inspire artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. They include such great artists as Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, R.A. Penck, and Joseph Beuys. They focused themselves on the example left by our ancestors and in the process produced some wonderful paintings and drawings. And yet hardly one of them could really reach the immediacy and fascinating simplicity of a reduction to the most elementary forms of life that is so apparent in the original cave paintings themselves. How could they? Obviously not because anyone of them lacked the requisite painterly skills and abilities. It’s rather because they all were or still are active in a context from which freedom of activity, comparable to what our ancestors 30,000 years ago enjoyed, has long since disappeared – at least when artists intend to be successful players on the art market by selling their works.


Perhaps each in its own idiosyncratic way, the art of a Vincent van Gogh or the street art of a Keith Haring or Banksy shows much more of an affinity with the vivacious freedom of this art. Yet even here in our times the marketing context intrudes in the shape of the proclaimed fame of these artists as opposed to the identity of the creators of these prehistoric works which will remain for ever shrouded in anonymity. The freedom exercised by our ancestors which goes hand in hand with the unimaginable challenges they had to face each and every day in order to survive, is quite beyond the grasp of those of us alive today – both in our day-to-day lives and in art.

How good it is, therefore, that those of us alive today can still, more than 30,000 years later, take stock of ourselves in comparison with our ancestors on a broad variety of levels. This is also something we should do.


Some parts of this blog draw on the inspiration and insights I gained during my visit to the “Prehistory – A Modern Enigma” exhibition held in summer this year at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.