Experiencing Nature: Through the earliest examples of Visual arts

The understanding of Nature as we, the modern people look into it, is much more different from the viewpoint of our predecessors; or rather say quite alienated from their standpoint. The relationship between men and nature in the pre-historic times was literally more physical. Men, breathing and living in the realm of nature, thus experienced it more directly. The expressions of his artistic prowess or any kind of ritual orientation incorporated the elements of Nature directly- not alienating from man’s life. Besides, what we regard as primitive art might not the reflection of conscious aesthetic considerations on the part of those who created it. The works that we, from our modern standpoint, deem “artistic” were, for them, expressions of feeling or of ideologies of spiritual beliefs. However, it is very difficult to summarize such a complex and varied phenomenon, spanning thousands of years. The Cave art of Lascaux, Altamira or the Cave paintings of Bhimvetka, all of these cave art reflects similar kind of attitude of prehistoric men towards Nature.

Paleolithic artists created reliefs by building up forms in clay rather than cutting into stone blocks or stone walls. This kind of example can be seen in the deeper interiors of cave chambers at Le Tuc d’auodoubert, France. (fig 1) A pair of Bison had been modeled in clay against a large irregular free standing rock. The two bison are strictly in profile, much like other examples of these kinds; shows the observation skill as well as the skills of execution of Paleolithic artists. The facial features of two Bison’s are modeled by hand and further finished by smoothening the surface of the body with some kind of spatula-like tool. However modeling a shape of some animals in considerable sizes, which can often be seen in Paleolithic art, examples of tiny shapes can also be found. A broken spear thrower (fig 2) in a form of a Bison found in La Madeleine, France is only four inches long. The most interesting feature of this piece of art is the imagination of the artist as he adjusted the arrangement of his Bison figure according to the shape of the Broken spear thrower. The sculptor incised line into the bison’s mane most probably using a burin. Compared to the previous example this one is much more detailed in terms of his facial features like eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth. It is also noteworthy as the artist turned the neck a full 180 degree to maintain the strict profile view.

FIG 3: Hall of Bulls, Lascaux, ca 15000 BCE

The Caves at Lascaux consist numerous images of animals on the deepest interior walls of these caves. A particular cave which is known as the ‘Hall of Bulls’ (fig 3) not because having only images of prehistoric bulls but consists numerous other animals too but most certainly it has four large images of Bull on its wall. These images of Bulls and various other kinds of animals are depicted mostly in lines and some of them have colour silhouettes. Prehistoric cave artist mostly used mineral extract mixed with animal fat or blood. Overlapping images on some walls also refers to the fact that these images might have been drawn in different time periods. An interesting feature of Lascaux cave paintings is the convention of showing bulls having horns that shows twisted perspective or composite view because the heads are in profile while the horns are in frontal, as in profile view one cannot see two horns of a bull simultaneously. It reveals that the artist did intend to approach to paint the bull in a descriptive way as having two horns complete the ‘concept’ of a ‘Bull’- then why not showing it?

Recent discoveries of Cave art at Vallon-Pont d’arc, France showed quite modified versions of painted animal heads. The carbon dating process also pointed a much strange fact that many of these paintings were much older than that of Lascaux cave art. Interestingly these animal heads (fig 4) shows profound observation of the artist as the horns of the bulls are overlapped one another in these painted animals which are quite convincing in terms of a correct anatomy of the bull in a strict profile view. However, all of these kinds of cave paintings were done in the deepest interiors of caves which were least accessed by humans, on the other hand, many of these paintings also show various aspect that relates these with prehistoric rituals. Rituals of the hunting-gathering community of men. Executing images of animals not only reflects the artistic ability of prehistoric men, it also reflects the idea of having some kind of rituals around these paintings. Many of these paintings of animals show marks of arrows in them and painted arrows too (fig 5). As some of them merely acted as a marker of target practice, painting a hunting scene would also show how these men mystified various ideas regarding the animals. Having them killed in the paintings thus allow the prehistoric hunters greater success in the original hunt.

fig 6: paintings at Bhimvetka, India, ca 12000 BCE

The paintings at the caves of Bhimvetka, India unquestionably shows these ritual aspects of these cave paintings which is almost thirty thousand years old. Fig 6 clearly shows an ongoing hunting scene where several men are chasing animals while riding horses. The shapes are strictly geometrical and crude but much more advanced in terms of narrative. Paintings at Bhimvetka are linear in nature. They not only exhibit animals but men with bow and arrow. Now these hunting scenes placed as a subject matter might have various reasons- a society of hunters and gatherers would know itself with this kind of vitality to show it in a painting, on the other hand, it also project the idea of a ritual where killing an animal on a painting would capture the soul of a real animal thus ensure greater victory in the hunt; this kind of ‘voodooist’ approach still exist in different tribal and folk communities across the globe.

The understanding of nature that incorporated in the works of Far-Eastern art can also be seen in the early Shang dynasty(1766-1111 BC) of China that also known as the Bronze era in Chinese history. In the earliest time in China, Neolithic man’s visual sense revealed only in the shapes and decoration of pottery. Already familiar with the properties of clay, potters invented shapes which gradually established as a part of the long heritage. The technological advancement then enabled these potters to justify their works of art or rather say pottery in newly developed medium-Bronze. Soon Bronze vessels became the emblem and stature of then Chinese Monarchs.

Shapes of Chinese Bronze vessels which were predominantly simple soon evolved into complex shapes and design due to the new medium-Bronze. Many of these vessels served as the functional object but the decorations and motifs of designs that incised in their thick outer wall revealed other facts: their association with rituals; rituals that shaped with a particular understanding of nature. Fig 7 shows a vessel mainly named as Li-ting which was used for heating wine or cooking food by placing them directly in the burning embers. In most cases, these early Shang dynasty vessels reflect motifs of various animals, Human faces, deer or elephant head or other mythical creatures. These motifs of animals can also regard the fact of a ritual: a ritual for sacrifice. But the question of mythical motifs is quite difficult to understand from our modern standpoint. The all-pervading t’ao-t’ieh mask, with its protruding eyes and ferocious upper jaw, must represent something important in terms of ritual as we know as blood sacrifices. This kind of rituals having a place on most of the earliest communities always refers to the fact of man mystifying nature. The unknown phenomenon of nature that could not easily understand thus must be calmed by making offerings to the unknown powers of Nature. Fig 8 shows a bucket named as ‘Yu’ is an example of late Shang bronze vessel, although the motifs of t’ao-t’ieh are not be seen the mythological creatures or shapes of composite animals made their way in the design of vessels. A terrified human figure in the clutches of a monster that too is composite one: a deer in the head, elements of a dragon in the body and serpents. The shapes and the decorations of these vessels, marvelous in their own way, provide a vivid insight into a society for which symbols of rituals were the chief elements of expression.

No discoverable common meaning or motivation seems to underline different artistic intentions; artists representing nature and those utilizing it cannot be measured by the same means. The way we modern people look at nature is far too different the way our predecessors looked into it. For them, Nature was wild and dreadful, and as we quite ahead of ‘controlling’ nature in one way or other, we thus alienate ourselves with nature quite often, our contemporary art practices show that. The physical experience of Nature that once men had felt, paved their way of looking towards Nature in their art, although incorporation of nature in the art might not be the same in different societies and communities but they all share similar kind of approach towards it.



  • Fred S. Kleiner. (2010). Art Through the Ages. Boston: Clark Baxter.
  • Mary Treager. (1993). Chinese Art. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Sherman E. Lee. (1994). A History of Far Eastern Art, Prentice Hall.
  • Andrew Graham-Dixon. Art: The Definitive Visual Guide, DK.

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Hello folks, I'm an Art History major from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (2017). I've done my graduation in History of Art from Kala Bhavana, Visva Bharati University. My Master’s research project deals with issues concerning about historiography, Narrativity, and stylistic formulation of Bengal Pata painting tradition. I have done a self-funded research work on the Terracotta temples at Surul, Santiniketan; focusing on the confluence of Indo-European cultures in the terracotta fringes at the temple walls. My other research interest lies in the field of Folk and functional art of India, advent of modernism in Indian art, contemporary art scenario and the discourse of the theories of social science in visual art. You can contact me directly on : rahulmajumder.agt@gmail.com

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