BY Tom Melick in Reviews | 20 MAR 16
Featured in
Issue 179

Art of Prehistoric Times: Rock Paintings from the Frobenius Collection

Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, Germany

BY Tom Melick in Reviews | 20 MAR 16

Procession, Zimbabwe, Chinamora, Massimbura 8,000-2,000 BCE. Watercolour by Elisabeth Mannsfeld, 1929, 65 x 202.5 cm © Frobenius-Institut Frankfurt am Main

If modern art were a river, then 1937 might be the point at which it bifurcated. It was the year Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Ziegler organized ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art), a touring exhibition of 650 artworks confiscated from 32 German museums, which presented modern art as pictorial evidence of the ‘degeneration’ of culture and an ‘insult to German feeling’. Meanwhile, in New York, the Museum of Modern Art opened ‘Prehistoric Rock Pictures’, showcasing 150 watercolour facsimiles of cave paintings juxtaposed with a simultaneous exhibition of artworks by ‘Twelve Modern Painters’, including Jean Arp, Paul Klee and Joan Miró. The show aimed to convince a skeptical public that all those strange new forms in modern painting could be traced back to Palaeolithic times – that is, to humankind’s first attempts at picture-making. ‘That an institution devoted to the most recent in art should concern itself with the most ancient may seem something of a paradox,’ wrote museum director Alfred H. Barr Jr. in the exhibition’s catalogue, ‘but the art of the 20th century has already come under the influence of the great tradition of prehistoric mural art.’ 

But there seemed to be another paradox, too. This collection of facsimiles had travelled to New York from Nazi Germany. The watercolours belonged to the Frobenius Institute, founded in Frankfurt in 1925 by the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius. (Though never a member of the Nazi party, Frobenius did receive funding from Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.) From 1904 to 1935, Frobenius had led and co-ordinated groups of painters (most of them women) on a series of expeditions to Africa, the Sahara, Spain, France, Scandinavia and Australia. The focus of these trips had nothing to do with modernism. Rather, the aim was strictly ‘scientific’: to accurately record the historical developments of the longest known artistic tradition – prehistoric rock art. The decision to capture the spirit of the original pictures via the human eye and hand (rather than in photographs) makes the copies in the collection seem completely antiquated and entirely inaccurate, yet utterly ambitious and compelling. 

Eland antilopes, buffalos and humans, Republic of South Africa, Harrismith, Balmoral 8,000-2,000 BCE. Watercolour by Maria Weyersberg, 1929, 98 x 134 cm © Frobenius-Institut Frankfurt am Main

Looking, today, at these watercolours – around 100 of which are on display at Martin-Gropius-Bau – it’s easy to see how the artists of the 20th century, in their drive to deskill and disorganize the picture, came under the influence of cave painting. Now that modern art is safe inside the academy, it’s worth speculating why these copies are still of interest, not for their comparisons with ‘fine art’, but as evidence of a timeless interest in form. Take, for instance, a 1932 copy of an ancient giraffe-camel-elephant engraving from northwest Libya, which shows all three animals overlapping, as though morphing into one creature. I would be surprised if any painter – or, come to think of it, animator – were not impressed by the inventiveness and economy of line in the elision of the animals’ bodies, or of the way the forms lead and confuse the eye. (I clumsily tried to copy this picture in my notebook but was quickly undone.) 

To be sure, rock painting minus the rock is an odd, even awkward thing. In front of some of these wall-sized watercolours – many of which attempt to imitate the fault lines and dusty reddish browns of the original rocks’ surfaces – I couldn’t help but think of oversized postcards: bison and horses, camels and elephants, fish and long-limbed human figures removed and isolated from their geological settings. It’s often said that the uneven, lumpy, bulging, chipped and scratched walls of the caves ‘spoke’ to prehistoric artists, inspiring and enhancing their depictions. If Frobenius’s scientific approach robbed the original creations of that specific magic, it also inadvertently offered an archive to consider what the copy means – distinct from mechanical reproduction – both for art history and anthropology. 

Stag hunt, Spain, Valltorta, Cueva Mas d’en Josep, 8,000-3,000 BCE. Watercolour by Alf Bayrle, 1934, 50 x 38 cm © Frobenius-Institut Frankfurt am Main

My visit to the exhibition happened to coincide with a school excursion, so I watched as groups of children sat on the floor with pencils and paper, copying the large watercolours before them. It was clear that their versions of a hunting scene, or images of roaming bison and ibex, would be completely different to those in the Frobenius collection – each of the children’s copies a redefinition of space, line and motion. If the act of copying is a departure from what is copied, it is also an opportunity to concentrate, and through that concentration, relocate and reanimate the image in the present. Is this what prehistoric artists were doing when they painted and carved images on and over previous pictures and carvings? Is this what Frobenius’s artists were unknowingly doing in the name of scientific research? And is this what these children were doing: compressing time by returning to a line that is – and is not – prehistoric?