27,000-year-old cave painting looks like a Modigliani

Archaeologists have just discovered what appears to be the oldest portrait of a human face ever — a cave drawing from 27,000 years ago. Here’s the cool thing, though: The drawing is a set of sharp black lines of positively modernist abstraction. Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones notes that the face looks oddly like a Modigliani, and goes on to ask an interesting question:

Why did the first artists draw like Picasso? It has to be because of their attitude to the face, to their own embodiment and that of the people they lived with — it has to be because of how they saw human beings specifically, because this is very different from the way they painted animals. Stone Age artists could paint with a verisimilitude that takes your breath away; the horse panel in the Chauvet cave, older than this drawing, is covered with acutely observed heads of aurochs (extinct relatives of cattle) and horses whose tufty manes are painted with a clarity Da Vinci would have admired.

Even back 27,000 year ago, Jones suggests, humans realized there was something unique about humans — something that made them different from the animal kingdom. Indeed, Jones figures this cave drawing challenges the idea that portraiture as an art form only congealed in the Renaissance, as an offshoot of the growth of Western individualism. Or to put it another way: How much of a sense of the “individual” did people have 27,000 years ago?

Of course, one could also point out that the reason the cave painter looks like Modigliani is that Modigliani himself probably took inspiration from the stylized nature of cave drawings; or to put that another way, how modern is modernism?

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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