Sunday, June 24, 2018

In Praise of Hands by Henri Focillon 2

 Hand print found in a cave in Borneo with other images created by cave people. 

No matter where found, the ancient art of the cave people features the stenciled or traced hand. 

"The human hand forms one of the most ancient themes of human art," reports a study of hand stencils in Upper Palaeolithic cave art, published by Durham University. "Prehistoric examples of hand prints (positive images formed by covering the hand with paint and placing it on a surface, rather like modern children create) and stencils (negative images formed by placing the hand against a surface and blowing paint around it) are known from prehistoric contexts in Latin America, the Sahara, Indonesia, Australia and Tasmania, in many cases dating back several thousand years. For decades these have been thought to be Mid Upper Palaeolithic in age (around 22-29,000 14C BP) but recent dating and critical evaluation of existing data have shown that they are among the earliest examples of European Upper Palaeolithic cave art., stretching back at least to 35,000 (calendar) years ago."

Investigations by Anthropology professor Dean Snow at Pennsylvania State University further show that many of the hands stenciled or traced are those of women, and it is thought that this could mean that the stenciling of hands had a religious significance. 

Henri Focillion would not be surprised by such conclusions. "I seem to see primitive man inhaling the world through his hands," Focillon writes in his essay "In Praise of Hands," "stretching his fingers into a web to catch the imponderable."

Hand stencils next to drawings of horses in the Peche Merl caves in southern France. 

Focillon writes as if to explain the presence of hands as a kind of signature or sign of human presence and action on the world:

"As soon as man tries to intervene in the natural order in which he is subject, from the moment he begins to push a pointed instrument or a sharp edge into some hard material in order to split it and give it form, his primitive labor contains in itself its whole future development. The caveman carefully chipping the flint and fashioning needles out of bone astonishes me much more than the clever builder of machines. He is no longer activated by unknown forces; he can work on his own. Formerly, even in the recesses of the deepest cave, he remained on the surface of things; even when he broke up animal vertebrae or tree limbs, he did not penetrate, he had no access to meaning. The implement itself is no less remarkable than the use to which it is put. It is both a value and a result in itself. There it is, set off from the rest of the world, something new. Though a stone knife may have a cutting edge no sharper than that of a thin shell, it was not picked up by chance on some beach. It can be called the work of a new god, the product, indeed, the extension, of his hands."

Hand stencils from La Cueva de las Manos (Cave of Hands) in Patagonia, Argentina. 

"What distinguishes dream from reality is that the dreamer cannot engender art, for his hands are asleep. Art is made by the hands. They are the instrument of creation, but even before that they are an organ of knowledge," Focillon writes."...In the artist's studio are to be found the hand's trials, experiments and divinations, the age-old memories of the human race which has not forgotten the privilege of working with its hands."

Hand print decorations in a cave in southern Africa. 

See In Praise of Hands by Henri Focillon 1