Evolution of Art - Part 1

Art is an expression of human imagination. We use art to beautify things around us. Nature also manifests itself in different art forms. Male Bowerbirds build a love nest to attract female birds and decorate it with colorful objects. As humans evolved, so did art as a main part of our lives. Art has a fantastic history over the years and let us have a peep into its evolution.

Various Definitions of Art

Classically art is the process of creation. The end product for aesthetic value as a decorative piece, is called Fine Arts. If it is a creation for a purpose or specific use, then it is applied art. For example architecture is considered as Applied Art. A process of art used to create something can also be called a craft. Again craft can be for decorative purposes. When used for commercial purposes, it is called commercial art. Dance, music, theater and singing comes under performing arts.

Art in modern context continues to focus around the twin fields of painting & sculpture. Architecture is regarded as fine art as well as applied art.

Earliest artwork - the cave paintings

Earliest cave paintings are either wild animals or hand images (also known as hand stencils). Later cave paintings covered everything from daily activity like hunting or cooking to historic events like eclipses. Some have complex geometric patterns and shapes. Paintings found in India depict activities like childbirth and communal drinking.
Cave paintings were made with rudimentary tools like ivory and bones, sharpened to a tip. For color vegetable or fruit dyes were used. The oldest cave paintings, discovered in Spain are hand images dating back to 64000 years old. This means that this cave painting was done by a Neanderthal. This discovery is fascinating because for a long time we believed that only humans possess the capability of art. In the next stage of evolution, it took almost 20000 years for the first animal painting!
Early humans were cave dwellers. As hunters and foragers they used caves as shelter and for protection against wild animals and harsh elements of nature. There is also evidence to suggest that pre humans also chose to stay in caves. In the next stage of evolution, almost at the same time, at seven to eight locations around the world humans began coming out of caves. We left the preferred choice of hunting to start domesticating animals and grains. Potato, rice, sugarcane, wheat, soy, etc. Cultivation led to clearing of huge tracts of forest to grow food. Civilization started next to large rivers and large towns were established. Farming brought humans out of the caves around 20,000 years ago. We started building houses and monuments and decorated their walls with art. Along with that, art also came out in the open in the form of paintings and sculptures.

Age of buildings and sculptures

Humans began with sculpturing a long time back. Figurines were used as symbols of worship. Venus of Hohle is approx 40,000 years old. But the Venus of Berekhet Ram is reported to be at least 200,000 years old which is well before the evolution of humans. These sculptures are very very rudimentary in nature. But it establishes that humans always took to sculpturing as an art form. The famous Dancing Girl statue of Mohenjo daro which is approx 4000 years old is one such example and so is the dancing Natraja Bronze statue of Chola period. Humans experimented with metallurgy and pottery. They made magnificent buildings and monuments. The ancient seven wonders of the world are best examples.

But the most famous sculpture of history is the bust of Nefertiti. It is a painted stucco-coated limestone statue of the Royal wife of Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten. The bust looks alive and is regarded as one of the greatest pieces of artwork ever found in Egypt.  It is considered to be a symbol of feminine beauty. CT scans of the bust show that the sculptor Thutmose has even tried to show wrinkles under the eyes of the bust suggesting an ageing queen.

No monument present or past can rival the size and magnitude of Angkor Wat. It was completed as a Hindu temple complex in the early 12th century. Later it was converted to a Buddhist Temple complex. It continued to remain in a state of semi disuse till explorers rediscovered it. The magnificence of the largest religious complex in the world surprised everyone. This complex contains more stones than all the pyramids of Egypt put together. Spread across 400 acres, it is more of a city than a temple complex.

Painting and sculpting in Ancient India

In India, art was mostly focused at places of worship and wall art which is now known as tribal art. One notable example is the Khajuraho temple complex with around 85 temples spread over 20 square kilometers. They were finished by the 12th century and represent one of the finest examples of intricate carvings and design. Carvings depict Gods, apsaras, animals, scenes from ancient mythological texts, karma scenes, farmers, musicians, etc. Unlike the common perception, only 10% of the stone work is sexual or erotic art among the thousands of statues. Only 25 temples now remain, destroyed by Muslim raiders or lost to neglect and the elements. 

Discovered by chance in 1819, by the British, Ajanta caves have been carved in a horse shoe shaped rock mountain. It is a system of 30 caves used by Buddhist monks as a place to stay and meditate. The paintings and sculptures depict the life of Buddha and Buddhist way of life. The caves were built in two phases, 2nd century BC & 5th century.

The first phase was mostly Buddhist Stupas, prayer halls and viharas. This influence was from the Hinayana sect of Buddhism which is considered conservative because Lord Buddha forbade idol worship.

During the second phase of construction under the great emperor Harisena of the Vataka dynasty. The most beautiful work was done by hundreds of skilled artisans in cave 19 and cave 26. The construction went on right till the king's death, after which the patronage stopped and which is why a few of the caves are unfinished.

Ajanta caves are mostly mural paintings. Caves 1,2,16 & 17 have extensive murals. Cave 16 has paintings depicting the various Jataka tales.

These paintings have stood the ravages of time and weather without deterioration. The paintings are done on a dry wall. The wall consists of two layers. Layer one is the base layer made of a mix of powdered brick, sand mixed with molasses. Ripe bananas or tree resin was mixed as a binder. After drying, it was again ground and mixed with water for applying to the wall. The surface is washed with a lime coat. Finish coat or vajralepa was made by boiling leather until it became soft. Color or white mud was mixed and made into sticks. Colours used were mostly local minerals like ochre and indigo. First a sketch was drawn using iron ore while the surface was slightly wet. Outlines were filled in various colours and finished off with a final definition and burnishing process (polishing with smooth stone) to give lustre to the surface. Lamp soot was used for black colour. Ajanta cave paintings are not frescoes which are wet paintings.

Cave no 6 is the monastery or the prayer hall. It is massive and double storey with intricate carvings, pillars and statues of Buddha. Cave no 4 is however the largest prayer hall in size. Massive carvings were made with tools not more than hammer and chisel. 

The next evolution of art is what happened in Europe and we know as the renaissance.