(Berlin.) Today’s show is special: Martin-Gropius-Bau shows forgeries of unsigned works from unknown artists. Artists with a very limited palette who got the perspective entirely wrong, not to mention proportions. They have a great excuse though, as these artists were true pioneers. Ok, let’s start again: A century ago, when life was still fun and every archaeologist a Henry Jones jr., Leo Frobenius, the self taught founder of his own research institute, went on numerous expeditions from Central Europe and Scandinavia to the coasts of Africa, Papua and Australia. With him he took a bunch of artists to copy cave paintings on paper, and these drawings are shown at Berlin today.
Shortly after their creation in the 1930s, they've already toured the world, winning praise for example from legendary MOMA director Alfred Barr (maybe he just wanted to do promotion for the show when it came to his house). Primitive art massively influenced the artistic currents of the day, mostly Cubism, but Martin-Gropius-Bau also cites Miro - “In the age of cave painting, art has done nothing but degenerate” (1928) - and Giacometti - “there and only there, movement does succeed” (1946). Stick figure frescoes also remind of Jackson Pollock.
There seem to be actually three artists involved: the draughtsmen accompanying Frobenius, the Stone Agers whose original creations have been transferred to paper, and Mother Nature. Images don’t just show the lines our foreforeforefathers drew, but also colours and patterns surrounding them in their natural habitat. It’s not clear, to what extent these are manmade or the result not of water colours, but of water on the rocks.
The exhibition does not address the historical context of the expeditions that took place between 1904 and 1935. We only learn that Mr Frobenius sought to prove how “the art of European Ice Age continued in Africa”. His “African Atlantis theory” is not much endorsed today. Leo died in 1938, and on the web you find some information about Frobenius Institute in the mid 1930s being implicated in the SS “Ahnenerbe” research (itself established in 1935), which on the other hand seems odd as the “Africa Archive” only got the name Fresenius Institute after the war. It still exists today as a part of Frankfurt University.
Cave paintings are the oldest form of street art, graffiti without a spray can in different sizes from the casual tag to whole caves. And just like graffiti, they are neither signed nor dated. M.G.B. insists on adding rather imprecise information like “several millennia old”, or indeed “12 500, 4 000 or 2 500 years old”. The artistic mastery is roughly on the same level as street art, too (excepting troglodyte Banksy, of course).
To put it into some relation: cave drawings have been created up to 8,000 years prior to the first furnishings of Stonehenge. On this background, the history of mankind is a mystery. Science in general tends to materialism, which would mean the very first homo sapiens sapiens already had the abilities necessary to paint Guernica, compose the Ninth, write Finnegan’s Wake, build monster trucks and nuclear weapons, date on Tinder or watch UFC fights on TV. But they didn’t. For millennia (just how long is disputed, we’ve been around for something between 40,000 and 200,000 years). This is the place for all sorts of fringe theories - search the web for “ancient technology” and see how many imaginative (/insane) minds are out there. The first humans now are officially called “anatomically modern humans”, thus leaving space for something about them that was not quite the same as with us.
The exhibition is divided in different geographical areas, and it’s amazing how much African and European Stone Age art resembles each other.
Nobody knows exactly how cave drawings have been perceived by their audiences, how they fit into the contemporary critical discourse - “You seen the new mammoth magic from Ukrr-Ugug?”, “Oooh, yeah, but you know his auction results - never fetched more than a million pebbles...“. We certainly are no experts, which makes it all the more fun to study those images and deduce Stone Age beliefs. A Swimmer in the desert might be a prove of the global warming going on back then, it certainly does not support that old aquatic ape theory. Chimaeras are a popular motive. There’s even Ganesha, or a guy with elephantitis. The first gods were half animal half man – what if Darwinism has been a part of human knowledge all the time? Or maybe there was just a serious lack of women to mate with. Unfortunately there are no documents left about the scandal caused by the blasphemous paintings in Egypt (about 6k-5K BC), when a rebellious art student killed the animal gods by drawing a human with animal head pierced by spears. Was this a great act of liberation or the Fall of Man? And what became of the responsible, what were the reactions of state, church and art criticism? Now, if there would also be burning spaceships... (so sad, reality is always less interesting than imagination. That’s why we need art: to escape the boredom of existence and scientific explanation).
It’s nice to see how all these years ago, hounds have already used domesticated humans for hunting. And we love the painters' sense of gender diversity: people either have an erection or two at the height of their chest. The image subject can leave room for speculation though, what we thought a mammoth is claimed to be a ram and a snake a “long limbed figure”. Occasionally, the titles chosen by Frobenius and his team shy away from the truth: A Recumbent figure with horn mask is indeed such, but the most striking aspect is it not just lying on the ground, but peeing a fountain in the air; an early version of Brussels’s Manneken Pis. Figures on other drawings are either growing many-branched trees between their legs or are watering the land as well. Water was important.
Martin-Gropius-Bau is one of these greedy institutions that will not only charge you overpriced entry fees, but also try to boost catalogue sales by banning personal photos (if you’re a regular visitor on our site, we apologize for this déjà lû experience). It’s always ridiculous, but never as much as here. If any artworks are in public domain, then (copies from) Stone Age drawings. Now, there’s nothing as mysterious – and hostile to artistic/personal freedom - as copyright laws. Martin-Gropius-Bau shows documents proving they needed a permit of some Australian agency to exhibit copies made from Aboriginal cave drawings, only valid for specifically determined purposes. (Austraya. “That’s not a cave painting. That’s a cave painting.”) We’d love to think this is a joke, but Martin-Gropius-Bau is not an institution known for its sense of humour. The aboriginal works not only differ from Euro/African style in their being much more abstract, they are also the only ones still used for worship.
Finally we found the first UFOs. And an astronaut (come on, what would you be looking for?). The UFOs could also be submarines. Or just cylindrical forms. In any case, in 1934 a German cigar company launched “Frobenius” labelled products in these exact shapes (Martin-Gropius-Bau shows contemporary magazine ads). The point is, could you imagine any company using scientific research for publicity today? If tobacco were still a thing, there’d be cigars shaped like a Kardashian’s behind at the utmost. People were smarter, and more curious back then. But needless to say, this fascination for ideas went horribly wrong at the same time, in the same country. After all, it might be better to be dumb and harmless.
To deepen the lesson, it’s advised to visit New Museum’s collection, and thus we did the other day. Feeling we’ve taken enough of your precious time already, we won’t talk much about that institution on Museum Island, not about the strange fact of a “New Museum” showing the oldest art there is, nor about our encounters with the vicious hags, sorry: senior museum wardens - about ten of them, darting on every new visitor to command him to the cloakroom (we’ve complained about this annoyance before, and the wardens at Neues Museum have reached that stony age where paranoia is just normal behaviour) -, not about the presentation of mere theories as irrefutable facts, or how the announced “Time Machine” turns out to be an animated film. No, what we want to mention here is that we found those cylindrical forms again. In a golden hat from about 1K BC. It might be accidental, but it’s strange. Maybe Count Zeppelin actually built a time machine? A prehistoric wearable, the hat also features an inbuilt astronomical calendar/calculator. And it’s stylish, Pharrell could wear it.
The explanation texts tells us its wearer probably stood on top a platform or a carriage, as certain “patterns on its brim are only discernible from below”. Unfortunately it’s presented in a way that we can absolutely not see this. And what if these patterns were only a cheat sheet for the priest?
We also learn at Neues Museum that the mammoth is the most popular of all extinct animals not only from the Ice Age (take that, Diego and Sid). They have impressive tusks on display and inform about our ancestors’ hunting techniques. There's a cemetery in a shelf with actual skulls, and skeletons show Stone Agers have been buried in a perched position – the same position can be seen on cave paintings at Martin-Gropius-Bau, there interpreted as living persons. Of gold tools Neues Museum assures they're made from “natural gold” which doesn’t surprise us that much as we’ve never yet met with a successful alchemist. All this on the third floor, below there’s Egypt and Middle Ages and much more; it’s a big museum.
Art of Prehistoric Times. Rock Paintings from the Frobenius Collection, 21 January-16 May 2016, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin
Permanent collection of Neues Museum, Berlin