Two of the most notable examples of prehistoric art, the Woman of Willendorf and the cave paintings at Lascaux, have the power to inspire awe and stimulate discussions on the consciousness of early humanity. The cave paintings at Lascaux, in , are rendered with remarkable deftness and skill. Likewise, the sculpture of a fertile woman found in Willendorf in modern-day Austria bears testimony that early artwork showed signs of technical sophistication. These works of art also shed light on the values, worldviews, and ways of life of prehistoric human beings. The creative impulse, the drive to create not for daily life, but also objects of art, exemplifies the advancement of human consciousness beyond the simple animalistic survival instinct. The Woman of Willendorf and the cave art in Lascaux show how human beings expressed their self-consciousness and how they envisioned their role in the greater world around them.
Early Europeans painted the Lascaux caves in the Upper Paleolithic period, long after the Neanderthal revolution that represented a leap in human consciousness (Tedesco, 2000). They are dated to about 15,000 BCE, and mainly depict the animals that would have been found in Europe at that time. Included in the paintings are renderings of deer, bison, bulls, and horses, but there are also some representations of the human form, a bird, and even a rhinoceros (The Cave Paintings of the Lascaux Cave, (n.d.). Altogether there are about two thousand different figures, which also include some abstract signs that defy objective interpretation (The Cave Paintings of the Lascaux Cave, (n.d.). Yet the presence of abstract symbols in conjunction with the representative art does indicate the capacity of early humans to think abstractly and perhaps religiously as well. The cave paintings could indicate a reverence and appreciation for the natural world, honoring the abundance of the land in yielding all that is necessary for the preservation of human life. Likewise, the cave paintings could indicate the human capacity to interpret and give meaning to our surroundings, which may have been one the dual functions of early art as well as early religion (Tedesco, 2000).
The Woman of Willendorf sometimes referred to as the Venus of Willendorf, has been called an icon of prehistory, (The Woman of Willendorf, n.d.) Its overtly fertile and voluptuous, with exaggerated breasts and visible vagina, form has suggested that it is a fertility symbol, perhaps a goddess. As small as it is, the figurine is remarkably detailed, indicative of advanced artistic skills. Like the cave paintings at Lascaux, the Woman of Willendorf is considered to be from the Upper Paleolithic period and lends insight into what human life and worldview would have been at that time. The figure was enough to be carried, perhaps as a talisman (Zygmont, n.d.). It is possible that the subject matter indicates a matrifocal or , or it could also mean that women were valued chiefly for their reproductive prowess. The detail on the womans hat, however, offers a counterpoint to the large breasts. It is also possible that the artist simply intended to reproduce the beauty of the female form using sculpture as a medium, and that the figure did not serve any religious function at all.
Based on their stylistic choices, the Woman of Willendorf and the cave paintings of Lascaux show that prehistoric human beings were more intelligent and had the capacity for abstract thought than perhaps they have been given credit for. Because of the lack of written context accompanying these works of prehistoric art, a great degree of speculation surrounds the motivation for the design choices and the subject matter. Although art served a different function in the Upper Paleolithic era than it does today, the use of visual art does lend insight into social values and worldviews. Paleolithic humans were interested in their collective survival, evidenced by cave paintings depicting animals that could be hunted for food and clothing, and by sculptures that depict fertility and species propagation.
The Cave Paintings of the Lascaux Cave, (n.d). Bradshaw Foundation. http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/lascaux/
Tedesco, L.A. (2000). Lascaux. The Met. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/lasc/hd_lasc.htm
The Woman of Willendorf, (n.d.). . http://www.thenagain.info/WebChron/World/Willendorf.html
Zygmont, B. (n.d.). Venus of Willendorf. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/prehistoric-art/paleolithic-art/a/venus-of-willendorf