In 1939, in a cave in Hohlenstein-Stadel, Germany, a geologist, Otto Völzing, discovered some fragments of a small prehistoric sculpture carved out of mammoth ivory. After more pieces were discovered in 2009, the object was almost completely restored; at around 40,000 years old, it is now considered the oldest figurative sculpture on the planet. Looking like a fusion between a lion and a person, it stands on two legs, is roughly 30 cm tall and has the kind of genial expression that wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney movie. Despite being known in German as Löwenmensch (Lion-human), in English the sculpture is referred to as Lion-man. The German archaeologist and Upper Palaeolithic expert Joachim Hahn believes that a plate on the sculpture’s abdomen represents a ‘penis in a hanging position’, while the paleontologist Elisabeth Schmid – who has a theory that Lion-man was the product of a matriarchal society – believes it to be a pubic triangle. In 2011, the German magazine Der Spiegel quoted Kurt Wehrberger – the curator of archaeology and deputy director of the Ulm Museum, which owns Lion-man – as saying that the statue has been made into an ‘icon of the women’s movement’. The Ulm’s website states: ‘We cannot know precisely the intentions of its creators. Even though this unique relic is a fantastical creature, which draws us intuitively towards the spiritual world of early humans living in the grip of the last ice age, we will never be able to decipher their clearly highly complex world view.’ To my mind, this is not necessarily a bad thing: this not-knowing has generated a host of fascinating debates around the possible meanings of the object and its place in society – discussions that, in myriad ways, have kept this small object alive.
That the significance of a work of art is elusive can often add to, rather than detract from, its appeal. Such indeterminacy allows for infinite speculation and lets the imagination roam unhindered by the anxiety that your response might be the wrong one. This is not, obviously, to suggest that art history is irrelevant – that would be absurd. Deep scholarship is a profound and essential part of understanding the evolution of art. But just now and then, ignorance can inspire a different kind of understanding, one grounded in a sense of humility and common humanity. It is oddly comforting to know that, in our information-heavy age, while there are still things that are beyond our comprehension, they are not beyond the limits of our empathy or imaginings.
Many of the most famous works of art are mysterious: for example, no one knows for certain who posed for Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring (c.1665) or exactly what Nicolas Poussin meant to convey in his painting of ancient Greek shepherds conversing around a tomb, Et in Arcadia ego (1637–38). The website of Florence’s Uffizi Gallery admits that the interpretation of one of its most famous paintings, Sandro Botticelli’s allegorical Primavera (c.1482), ‘is difficult and still uncertain’. Why did Hans Holbein the Younger include a distorted image of a skull in his famous portrait of two young men, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, The Ambassadors (1533)? And did the artist Giorgione even exist? Debates have long raged about what he meant to communicate in his work La Tempesta (The Tempest, c.1505) – one of the most enigmatic paintings of the Renaissance. But, as the art historian John-Paul Stonard wrote in the Guardian in 2016: ‘The true lesson of Giorgione, and the myth surrounding his name, is that not knowing is not always a bad thing. As Vasari surely knew, such poetic painting is about the experience of nature and life itself, rather than illustrating stories, or creating clever riddles for art historians to decode.’
Of course, not knowing is not OK if you pretend that you do, in fact, know. (Not mentioning any names, Donald Trump.) Yet, in an era in which we are endlessly bombarded with news, statistics, information and the dreadful certainties of religious and political extremism, the secrets that reside at the heart of much great art can supply an infinite and enriching space for contemplation – one that allows us to connect with the creative lives of our fellow humans over the centuries. During the 20th and 21st centuries, many artists have created work that intentionally resists being pinned down; the contemporary American artist Trisha Donnelly, for example, will not permit any explanation, press releases or gallery guides to accompany her exhibitions, preferring visitors to reach their own conclusions.
In a letter to a friend in 1963, the painter Giorgio de Chirico wrote: ‘Perhaps the most amazing sensation passed on to us by prehistoric man is that of presentiment. It will always continue. We might consider it as an eternal proof of the irrationality of the universe. Original man must have wandered through a world full of uncanny signs. He must have trembled at each step.’ De Chirico couldn’t have seen Lion-man, as the first reconstruction of the sculpture wasn’t completed until 1982. I have a feeling, though, that he might have liked the fact that we know so little about it, apart from what we see and how it makes us feel. As De Chirico well knew, no two people have ever looked at an object or an image and seen and felt the same thing.