Posts Tagged ‘David Lewis-Williams’

Last week when I read the NY times article about the discovery of the 45,000 year old cave drawings I was reminded of the Zhou Brothers.

Let us now consider

  • Cave paintings
  • Abstract Expressionism
  • The Zhou Brothers
  • corporate suits in the Chicago Loop

It’s interesting to speculate about the species of mammal depicted in this cave 45,000 years ago, but it’s the hand that captivates us, isn’t it.  It’s unimaginably far in the past and yet here it is, so immediate.

We’ve been fascinated by cave drawings since 1940, when eighteen-year-old Marcel Ravidat and his friends roamed through the woods in the Dordogne region in France, noticed a hole in the ground and crawled in. They discovered  a cave that came to be called the Lascaux Cave and turned out to have hundreds of drawings made about 17,000 years ago.


By the late 1940’s Abstract Expressionism was in full swing in New York.  In my readings I have never come across any artist working between 1940 and 1965 who claimed kinship with these ancestors that laid their hands on the rock wall, filled their cheeks with paint and blew.  But the kinship is there, literally, in the sense that we are all descended from those ancients who left their hand prints on cave walls.  To claim aesthetic kinship, however, would take a heavy hand on the Ouija board. Our Western aesthetic comes, not from cave paintings, but from the ancient Greeks, 500-400 BC.

Modernism is a rejection of these classical ideals.  In the 1940’s, as Harold Rosenberg said, “At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act. What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Abstract Expressionism is characterized by gesture, brushstroke and action.

These are passages from DeKooning paintings to illustrate gesture, brushstroke and action:


Introducing the Zhou Brothers.  The two Zhou brothers, born 1952 and 1957, emigrated from China to Chicago in 1986 and quickly became rich and famous.   They work as a doubles team in attacking a canvas.  A small painting can be a mere 4 x 4 feet.  But large is what they are known for, like this:

I have not seen this particular painting, but I have seen one of their large paintings in the lobby of a Chicago sky scraper.  How large?  Large, sky-scraper-lobby-large.

The corporate finance guy who forked out the money for that large Zhou Brothers painting must have peered deeply into the corporate CEO’s soul, if you’ll allow that word in this context.  Art buying at that scale is a gamble.  My theory is that two mythologies converged in the CEO’s soul:  the all-American sentimentality for things antique and that all-American can-do individualism. That would be, respectively, Neanderthal cave painting and Abstract Expressionism. The Zhou Brothers figured this out, just like that.

Next time I’m in Chicago I will find that Zhou Brothers painting and linger in the lobby to interview the people who walk through there every day.  Just one question, excuse me, sir,  what do you see in this painting, what jumps out at you, what do like best here, has your view of this painting changed over the years, what style of painting would you call this, what does it remind you of… sir?   Sir?


This video shows the Zhou Brothers at the White House where their painting referencing American presidents is given to a Chinese official.  In talking about the painting, they present themselves as manufacturers and calculating salesmen.  The dimensions of the painting are 68 x 86.  This is important, they tell us, because these are lucky numbers in Chinese culture. Also 86 is the country code!  The red line in the painting symbolizes “spirit and the hope for the future of the US.”

Really?  You’re painting in the 21st century, seducing us with this whiff of Abstract Expressionism and all the while you’re stuck in the symbolism of color, the kitsch belief in lucky numbers and the business of flattering politicians?

About cave paintings:




Henri Édouard Prosper Breuil  (1877 – 1961)

Lewis-Williams, David.  The Mind in the Cave, 2002

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.





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When the movie came out last year, I thought it would enjoy a long run.  It didn’t and I missed it.  But it does well on Netflix, too.

The Chauvet Cave in southern France was discovered in 1994.  It contains the oldest paintings ever found anywhere, more than twice as old as any other. The paintings were originally (32,000 years ago) put on rock face that was recessed in a cave.  The cave at the time was readily accessible because it was not sealed. (20,000 years ago an enormous rock slide sealed the space.)  The artist and his audience could easily walk into the dark “galleries” but to see the drawings they had to bring torches.  The artist could have painted the rocks closer to daylight but he chose not to.  He painted by torch light, farther towards the back.  This tells us two things.  It tells us a) that these lively drawings of animals were all made from memory and b) that art was removed from everyday life.  These two points are related.

The persistent question for ethnologists and archeologists is, how did these people understand the world and themselves.  We can infer from their artifacts and from indigenous peoples in our own time, like the Australian Aboriginals, that their worldview blurred the line between reality and dream, between thought and action, between wish and deed, between the subjective and the objective, and between the image and the concrete thing.

Who made these drawings?  Could everybody draw like that?  Could anybody pick up a charred stick and draw a running horse from memory?  Was there a competition about who could get the anatomy most accurately?  No.  This was something only a few individuals were able to do.  Or were even inclined to do.  In the case of Chauvet Cave, we have one individual artist who left his fingerprint with a distinctive little finger, recognizable throughout.  He was six feet tall.  This information gives me goose bumps.   An individual.  He picked up his charred stick and his torch and walked to the back of the cave and drew these animals in motion—from memory.  There was no need for this.  Drawing did not fill his belly or build his muscles for combat, the better to survive.  Drawing was a removal from the necessities of everyday life.  It was not about survival, but about a new form of consciousness.

You can be sure that when he took his family back there, the folks were mystified and amazed that anybody could do this.  They thought the horses and bison were real.  What the artist himself saw was different:  he saw the lines he himself had made and at the same time he saw the evocation of the animals in these lines.  He was at the threshold of modern consciousness, which is a self-consciousness.

Herzog asks one of the archeologists why the cave artist made these drawings, was he perhaps like us moderns, and the archeologist answered with the cliché about the desire to communicate with the future.  The answer to Herzog’s question, I think, is yes, the cave artist was like us in his confrontation with his own consciousness.  His worldview, like everybody else’s at the time, blurred the line between reality and dream, between thought and action, between wish and deed, between the subjective and the objective, and between the image and the concrete thing.   We still do this.  The guy with the crooked little finger was probably terrified by his ability to conjure such images of reality with his charcoal stick.  We are not so terrified any more.  We have developed techniques that allow us to squarely look at the workings of our imagination, our ability to create symbols and images that manipulate the behavior of our fellow humans, who still can’t tell the difference between thought and reality, between the subjective and the objective, etc.  We are now looking at how our minds invent “reality.”  The guy with the little finger got us started on that path.

Well, some of us.  It’s hard to think about this.  Mr. Little Finger knew that.  That’s why he walked back to the dark part of the cave to do the work.  He drew from memory (a), an interior activity, that’s not concerned with mere survival (b), which is what consumes the energy of most members of the species.  Confronting consciousness is not for everybody.  It is the job of artists.

You want more goose bumps?  He was right handed.  That’s my opinion, because he preferred to draw the animals facing left and that’s the natural way for a right-handed person to draw.  The hand he showed us in his hand print (above) is the hand that made the drawings.

(The best book I know on this subject is “The Mind in the Cave,”  by David Lewis-Williams. He addresses this question of consciousness and avoids the clichés about spirituality and hunting.)

All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.




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