It fascinates me when similar ideas come to me simultaneously from completely different directions. The first revelation was a must-read article in The Guardian on how the cave paintings of Lascaux remind us that “in our self-obsessed age, the anonymous, mysterious cave art of our ancient ancestors is exhilarating.” The Paleolithic cave painters were fascinated with nature, which they put at the centre stage, while humans were an insignificant or even grotesque subject to them. As the author of the article puts it, “They knew where they stood in the scheme of things, which was not very high, and this seems to have made them laugh.” Another beautiful insight was offered in this statement:
“Maybe, in the ever-challenging context of an animal-dominated planet, the demand for human solidarity so far exceeded the need for individual recognition that, at least in artistic representation, humans didn’t need faces.”
The second eye-opening moment was a visit to an art gallery. I saw an exhibition of Swiss art from the 19th and 20th centuries called “Things Fall Apart,” the title being a quote from Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
The exhibition revolves around the idea of the fall of the human ego. The exhibited art marks a transition from the egocentricism to the humble admission that the I, the subject, is nothing but a fraction of a larger world represented by nature and by the unconscious psyche. Freud called this “a major humiliation of human narcissism.”
The evolution of landscape painting was especially stunning to me. Before Romanticism, the human figure used to be presented as a brave conqueror of nature, but the Romantics show him or her as vulnerable, marginalized, standing full of dread at the foot of a mountain. One painting in particular struck me enormously. I had previously seen a lot of works by Ferdinad Hodler, but not his “Aufstieg und Absturz” (Ascent and Fall), which depicts the tragedy of the first expedition to the Matterhorn in 1864. After a triumphant first ascent onto this iconic Swiss mountain, the descent brought a terrible tragedy, when four of the seven climbers fell to their deaths. Hodler’s monumental painting shows both moments. He had to cut his painting to pieces because it was too large to be displayed in a gallery. Below you can see my photo of the painting.
As a final thought, there is something poignant about the latest cover of the Time magazine with Greta Thunberg as the person of the year. How far have we come from the age of earth conquerors. Things indeed are falling apart on our planet, but Greta’s steady resolve and humility give me hope that all is not lost.