Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 27, 2013
Georges Bataille The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture Ed Stuart Kendall; trans Stuart Kendall and Michelle Kendall New York: Zone Books, 2009. 224 pp.; 15 ills. Paper $19.95 (9781890951566)

Georges Bataille’s writings on prehistoric art are known to the English-reading public mainly through two major books: Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the Birth of Art (trans. Austryn Wainhouse, Milan: Skira, 1955) was one of the earliest presentations of Lascaux to be illustrated with lavish color photographs; and The Tears of Eros (published posthumously in French in 1961, and in English in 1989 [trans. Peter Connor, San Francisco: City Lights]) started with a meditation on Paleolithic female figurines. It is less known that Bataille’s complete works in French include many other writings on the subject, ranging from book reviews to notes for public lectures and short essays, and even to a synopsis for a film (Georges Bataille, Oeuvres completes, Paris: Gallimard, 1970–1988, 12 vols.).

The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture selects eleven pieces to reveal Bataille’s long-lasting and profound interest in the subject. Although the translation does not always render the sharp elegance of Bataille’s prose, and one will regret the absence of a bibliography and an index, this edition has a triple value: to give access to little-known texts that document the history of Bataille’s thinking on art and its relationship with his wider philosophical interests; to give insight into the impact of discoveries and interpretations of prehistoric art and their popularization in mid-twentieth-century France; and more generally, to enlighten anthropological, ethical, and aesthetical issues regarding the emergence of human art and the art of non-European cultures.

Bataille showed interest in prehistoric cultures and art as early as 1930, and wrote several papers on the subject after the journal Critique was created in 1946, especially following his first visit to Lascaux in 1952. As the author of the preface, Stuart Kendall rightly remarks that many Hegelian aspects are present in Bataille’s thinking as he analyzes the emergence of human consciousness through work and religion, and through the dialectical duality of Eros and Thanatos. However, Bataille not only formulates a theory of art similar to Hegel’s thinking in which the realm of sensible forms is eventually surpassed by the realm of reason; Bataille’s reflections on art also deeply echo the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade and Friedrich Nietzsche. Like the “chaos of eroticism,” art is able to create states of intense emotion. Because it conveys “an a-theological sense of the sacred,” it is a means of surpassing reason and transgressing its limits (see Vincent Teixeira, Georges Bataille, la part de l’art [la peinture du non-savoir], Paris: L’Harmattan, 1997, 81). In art, as in other “dyonisiac” states, the world of work and reason is temporarily transgressed to restore the lost intimacy of humans with nature and the animal world to which they once belonged. Thus to humanity’s archaic ancestors who invented tools and work as a way of transforming nature, art could represent a revolt against the profane world of labor and a return, on a playful and parodic mode, to their original animality.

Bataille’s reflections reveal his passionate interest in “archaic” peoples, which was inspired by artists of his time, but also nourished by his reading of anthropological, archaeological, and paleontological literature. His several reviews of scientific publications and exhibitions reveal not only his attention to intellectual developments in these domains but also the necessity to include their themes in his personal reflections. In an essay published in Critique in 1953 entitled “The Passage from Animal to Man and the Birth of Art,” Bataille celebrates the publication of Quatre cents siècles d’art parietal by French archaeologist Abbé Henri Breuil (1952, translated by Mary E. Boyle as Four Hundred Centuries of Cave Art, New York: Hacker Art Books, 1979). Breuil was a world-renowned scientist whose explorations and tracings were crucial in constituting a corpus of Paleolithic art, and whose interpretations, mainly focused on hunting and fecundity magic, dominated the field throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Breuil’s work was then a major source for everyone interested in Paleolithic art. Bataille’s account of a 1930 exhibition organized at the Salle Pleyel on the works of Leo Viktor Frobenius, a German anthropologist who followed in the steps of Breuil to read and interpret South African rock art, is included in this volume. Despite Breuil’s influence on Bataille, he goes beyond Breuil’s interpretations, insisting on the fact that prehistoric images of animals “singularly exceed the material search for food through the technical medium of magic” (166). These paintings, Bataille writes, mostly reveal a deep connection between humans and animals. “Animals were but Man’s fellow creatures. . . . [In hunting] the dead victim was, like the corpses of humans, a threat to the survivor” (ibid.). Reviewing Georges-Henri Luquet’s L’art primitif (Paris: Doin, 1930), Bataille criticizes the psychoanalyst’s attempt to identify early artistic representations with children’s paintings or drawings. “Whereas the Upper Paleolithic painters left us admirable representations of the animals they hunted, they used childish techniques to represent themselves” (50). Again, this duality is only understandable against the background of an essential feature of the prehistoric world vision, a quasi-religious consideration for animals: “The representation of man only mattered in relation to the animal” (50), Bataille writes. In a 1958 review of a book by the Dutch anthropologist Johannes Maringer on prehistoric religion entitled De Godsdienst der Praehistorie (Roermond: Romen and Zonen, 1952; later translated into English by Mary Ilford as The Gods of Prehistoric Man, New York: Knopf, 1960), Bataille insists again on the importance of the religious bond between humans and animals in archaic societies: “animality for the man in the painted caves—as for archaic hunters today—was closer to a religious aspect, which later came to correspond to the name “divinity” (144). Therefore, what needs to be stressed and understood is the importance of “the passage from the initial opposition between animality-divinity and humanity to the opposition that still prevails today, that reigns over minds foreign to all religion, between animality devoid of any religious signification and humanity-divinity” (141; emphasis in original).

Like French poets René Char and Saint-John Perse, Bataille seeks in prehistoric worlds an image of another humanity, whose relationship to nature was closer and more harmonious than more contemporary societies. In this, Bataille’s comments on prehistoric art and cultures bear the mark of their time. Lascaux was discovered and revealed to the public in 1940 in the midst of one of the darkest periods in French history. Bataille’s texts from the 1950s reflect mid-twentieth-century trauma, following the Nazi’s horrors, the use of the atomic bomb, and Cold War fears. “Light is being shed on our birth at the very moment when our death appears to us,” he states in a 1955 lecture on prehistoric art entitled “A Meeting at Lascaux” (47–55). On the other hand, his vision of prehistoric humanity conveys the enduring image of a species able to exterminate its “others” to the last. The extinction of Neanderthals, which coincides with the arrival of Homo sapiens sapiens in Western Europe, echoes with later massacres and mass exterminations.

Today, novel explorations and studies have thoroughly transformed our vision of the origin and evolution of humanity and our knowledge and interpretations of Paleolithic art. Major discoveries such as the Chauvet Cave, along with the progress of dating techniques, have made some of Bataille’s comments on the origin of art obsolete. However, his reflections remain important, as they raise crucial issues regarding the definition of art, the relative notion of artistic beauty, and the essence of artistic values. When Bataille writes, “the meaning that prehistoric man gave his figures does not mean that the Lascaux’s paintings are not, unintentionally, works of art. But for us, what does a work of art mean when it, not being destined for our eyes, was not intended as a work of art by those who made it?” (83; emphasis in original), he stresses the incommensurability of “archaic” cultures’ values in relationship to our own.

As an attempt to tackle, and perhaps solve, this problem of incommensurability, Bataille’s study of the Lespugue Venus is particularly enlightening. In this text, which was part of an unpublished paper on art and eroticism, Bataille draws a brilliant comparison between the Gravettian mammoth ivory figurine and the portrait of “the honorable Mrs Thomas Graham” painted by Thomas Gainsborough. In his view, both feminine representations are meant to “raise male desire,” yet do so through divergent means. The Paleolithic figurine is deprived of facial features, while the middle parts of its body (breasts, belly, buttocks, and vulva) are hypertrophied. This exaggeration should not be read as realistic, but as a transfiguration of reality. “Evidently, the Lespugue Venus has nothing to do with our modern concept of female beauty” (106), Bataille admits. Rather, its beauty mainly resides in its composition, its architecture. On the opposite pole, the portrait by Gainsborough shows a woman whose features “erase the secondary accentuated characteristics of the Lespugue Venus (the breasts are hardly developed, the hips narrow) . . . it places the most value on the face” (116). And yet its erotic power remains intact: “respect is imposed in part by the refinement, the luxury, and the solemn regulation of the clothing, and in part the purity of her gaze and the line of her face, the pride of her posture” (ibid.). Bataille stresses here the divergence in beauty canons, in social and cultural values, while insisting on the permanence of artistic values and their intrinsic link with desire. The beauty of both images and their effect does not dwell in the faithful representation of a conventionally beautiful model, but in the artist’s construction. About the Lespugue Venus, Bataille writes: “In a sense, few works of art are as beautiful: a ray emanates from this figure, which would have left us unmoved if art were still a slave to the reproduction of a conventional physical beauty” (107). We may now be able to perceive this beauty because modern artists, inspired by the art of “archaic” peoples, have, in the same way, attempted to deconstruct facial features, body schemes, and human figures (see Bataille’s further comments on this point in “Le Masque,” Écrits posthumes, 1922–1940, Oeuvres complètes, Paris: Gallimard, 1970, vol. 2, 404), rethinking the relative sense of beauty, the relationship between art, nature, and desire, as well as giving full meaning to Picasso’s remark after his visit to Lascaux: “no one has done better since.”

Claudine Cohen
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Centre de Recherches sur les Arts et le langage, Paris