Art and Pre-History in Cinema and Painting

Artists and filmmakers depict pre-history: the art of imagining the unimaginably real

part of the series ‘A History of the World in 16 paintings, and the films they inspired’ Here I feature Thomas Cole’s The Savage State

Gillian McIver

By Thomas Cole – Explore Thomas Cole, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=182985

Thomas Cole’s The Savage State, The Clan of the Cave Bear and Quest for Fire

How to artists and filmmakers depict pre-history? You might be surprised to find that it is actually very uncommon for them to try to do so. Jurassic Park is not pre-history, it just has dinosaurs. Pre-history is different: the term means history before recorded information. It is the long period between the use of the first stone tools (3.3 million years ago) and the invention of writing (9000 – 3400 BCE).

This is a long time! But be careful not to imagine that prehistoric humans lived like animals. We made a lot of visual art, architecture and jewellery, for a long time before writing appeared.  Most of it is fabulous. In fact, even the idea that writing is the mark of civilization ignores the sophisticated oral and visual cultures which never developed writing because they really didn’t need it.

Anyway, for the purposes of this article, the term pre-history really is about history; it’s about what popular culture has long referred to as the ‘caveman (and cavewoman)’ era. As you’ll see, it takes a lot of imagination to conjure up what ‘caveman world’ might have been like. Fortunately, a handful of artists have actually tried to do this.

First, painting. Given that pre-history predates most of what we might consider urban society, it stands to reason that depicting pre-historical scenes would be about landscape and nature, and humans within that. Of course, there are plenty of paintings which are pure landscape, but it is rare for an artist to depict an explicitly prehistoric scene.

Even the spectacular painter of light, Claude Lorraine, felt obliged to add human narratives to the landscape. See, for example, Landscape with Narcissus and Echo; it’s clearly about the trees and the clear golden light, not about the mythical figures.  (Actually, Claude got other painters to paint the people). I digress.

Closer to our topic, British-American Thomas Cole painted The Savage State in 1833. It is a remarkable painting that seeks to depict a primeval scene. In The Savage State,  Cole imagines a world before human civilization.

Cole is best known as America’s first great landscape painter, founder of the Hudson River School. The Savage State is part of Cole’s series The Course of Empire,  five paintings depicting the rise and fall of an imaginary city.

In it, he protests the ruin of the landscape by ‘civilisation’ (a theme he returns to in other paintings). Cole’s series follows a coherent narrative, tracing the story as a primeval community develops into a vast empire, then falls into decadence.  It is almost a film storyboard,

I will return to The Course Of Empire in another article. Here I want to isolate The Savage State as a distinctive and possibly unique painting of pre-history. We will use this as a starting point to consider how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history.

Thomas Cole THE SAVAGE STATE artists and filmmakers depict pre-history
The Savage State

In The Savage State, primeval humans live in a sublime landscape of swirling sky and rough terrain. Landscape dominates the image. There are indications of human ‘savages’ in the picture. You can see them off to the right in a small encampment.  They do not represent any specific ethnicity. Nor do they represent conquered people. Instead, Cole meant to show ‘the origins of modern society’.

The figures in the picture are tiny, and we can barely see them, never mind understand any details. It does look like Cole’s ‘savages’ reference aboriginal North American life. You should know that Cole also painted scenes from his friend James Fennimore Cooper’s novel The Last of the Mohicans. It’s unlikely that Cole had any experience of actual native communities. These had been largely eradicated from the Hudson River region, where Cole worked.

In his writings, Cole made it clear that he intended the human settlement to be  European. However, in the 19th century, before archaeology of pre-historical sites, there was little knowledge or understanding of what pre-historical communities in Europe might have been like.

Unfortunately, the political conditions on America at the time meant that European settlers, of which Cole was one, believed that the Native Americans were less ‘civilised’ than Europeans. Therefore, they might serve as models for pre-historical imagery.

So, while aspects of the ‘generic savages’ in The Savage State are probably appropriated from Native American cultural imagery, Cole did not consciously intend to depict Native Americans as prehistoric. Nevertheless,  the prevailing colonial mindset he inhabited led him there.

In the 1980s, two films came out, both of which went to great lengths to try and imaginatively and credibly depict prehistoric human life. The first was 1982’s Quest For Fire, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. The second was directed by Michael Chapman, in his film version of the novel Clan of the Cave Bear (1986, from the novel by Jean Auel). Both of those films are almost entirely forgotten today, and I was not expecting much, but I was both surprised and fascinated by them.

Quest for Fire

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history QUEST FOR FIRE
Quest for Fire. Source: IMDB

Quest for Fire originated as a fantasy novel written in 1911 (by two Belgian brothers under the pseudonym J.-H. Rosny). This was long before today’s carefully-excavated knowledge about pre-history. But it indeed reveals the author’s fascination with both evolution and human behaviour. I’m not particularly concerned about whether the book or the film is accurate; first of all, I would have no idea because it’s not my area of specialism.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history QUEST FOR FIRE
how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history QUEST FOR FIRE

However, one can ask the critical question: is the film at least credible? It deals with human emotions and behaviours, which we would recognize today: group solidarity, domination and submission, conflict, love and loyalty, and pride in overcoming adversity. The Quest For Fire story begins with a small nomadic group carefully protecting its precious fire. But they don’t have the Promethean ability to make fire from scratch. When the fire goes out, three young males from the group go off in search of fire.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history QUEST FOR FIRE RAE-DAWN CHONG SOURCE: IMDB
Rae-Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire

Along the way, these vaguely apelike humanoids make contact with a seemingly more ‘evolved’ group that lives in villages, has much more language and uses tools. The coming-together of a woman (Rae-Dawn Chong, excellent performance) from the sophisticated group and a man from the unsophisticated group symbolizes some kind of dialectic: the last frame shows the couple in peace and harmony, the woman pregnant.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history QUEST FOR FIRE

The visual depiction of the ‘caveman world’ in Quest for Fire is achieved through excellent cinematography  by Claude Agostini and the work of Production Designer Brian Morris and his art department (which won Oscars and BAFTAs for makeup). Morris and his team had a very challenging job. Unlike Cole, they couldn’t merely look to (recent or historic) aboriginal communities as a shortcut to depict what prehistoric humans may have been like. So, they had to try to make it up from archaeological research while at the same time creating a richly exciting and relatable world for audiences to inhabit for the duration of the film. As a Franco-Canadian co-production, there was a substantial budget for location shooting. Jean-Jacques Annaud (who is, of course, one of the great French directors of our era) was able to film in some of the world’s most sublime unspoilt landscapes: Kenya, British Columbia, the Bruce Peninsula and the Scottish Highlands. The landscape cinematography by Agostini and his crew offers up a continent, unlike the ones we are familiar with now. And thankfully no dinosaurs.

Commenting at the time of the film’s release, the critic Gene Siskel noted that at first the film seems ludicrous and the depictions a bit forced, but then you start to think ‘I wonder if that’s the way it did happen?’ And when that happens, ‘Quest for Fire’ has you hooked.” Roger Ebert concurred, writing that “by the time the movie was over, I cared very much about how their lives would turn out.”[1]

Clan of the Cave Bear

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR
Clan of the Cave bear still; source: IMDB

Clan of the Cave Bear also has a plot that hinges upon the interaction between a primitive tribe and a more evolved individual. It is an adaptation of a bestselling novel by Jean M. Auel, published in 1980, which spawned a series that only concluded in 2011. Auel did plenty of research for the book, but has no academic background in pre-history studies; you cannot go to either the book or the film for “facts.” Yet both books and movies offer much in the way of atmosphere and ideas.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR
group solidarity and co-operation are foregrounded in both films

 Because the film is based on Auel’s recent book (cashing in on its bestseller status), it has less scope to develop its own way – in contrast to Quest for Fire. Screenwriter John Sayles has done what he can with Auel’s story, and it is an absorbing one, though somewhat hampered in its ending by the fact that Auel clearly planned sequels.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR
the humans are dominated by nature, they do not dominate it

In Clan, Ayla, a young Cro-Magnon woman (Daryl Hannah), is separated from her family and orphaned during an earthquake. Found by a group of cave-dwelling Neanderthals, she is raised as one of their own. Her intelligence presents a challenge to the tribe’s young future chief Broud (who unfortunately looks and acts like a member of an 80’s metal band). But the film is less about understanding some fine points about human development than it is about championing Ayla’s female emancipation and empowerment. As Ebert put it, ‘Neanderthal man is on the way out, and Cro-magnon woman is on the way in.’ As such, it’s an uplifting film in the 80’s tradition of Flashdance, although Chapman and his team don’t soft-soap the brute details of caveman life. The British Columbia locations are again breathtaking and versatile, as is the production design by Anthony Masters (Papillon) and especially the set decoration by Kimberley Richardson.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR
the interior of the cave, as decorated by Richardson and lit by DP Jan de Bont, is highly painterly and evocative. Still: IMDB

What grates in Clan is the juxtaposition of the fascinating story of Ayla’s self-discovery, her challenge to the patriarchal Clan and the finely-wrought visual storytelling, against the dated 80’s costume and makeup styling, not to mention the framing of the characters, which is pure 80’s cliché. Although Darryl Hannah’s performance is good, the studio just could not resist making the most of her blonde locks and leggy beauty. As Ebert bracingly put it, “Instead of people who are scarred, wind-burned, thin and toothless, it gives us graduates of the Los Angeles health club scene, and a heroine who looks as if she just walked over from makeup.”[2]

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR DARRYL HANNAH
not Raquel Welch but … see the much more convincing styling of Rae-Dawn Chong, above.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Clan of the Cave Bear, and I can’t help thinking that the narrative of female self-discovery just did not sit that well with the audience of 1986; I could not find any reviews by female critics. Dated the film may be in some respects, it is definitely worth a watch.

So, what about the pre-history?

What do we learn about the depiction of pre-history shown in these films? How do artists and filmmakers depict pre-history? When he painted The Savage State Cole was already a committed conservationist preoccupied with human depredations on landscape. In both Quest for Fire and Clan of the Cave Bear we see humans dwarfed by the landscape, dominated by it, unable at the stage of human development to do anything more than simply survive in it.

I did find something particularly fascinating when I was watching Clan of The Cave Bear. At one point there is a shot of a river which seems to be a direct reference to Thomas Cole’s most famous painting, known as The Oxbow (View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm). The picture and the film still both reveal the winding switchback of the river. Many art historians interpret The Oxbow as insinuating the confrontation between wilderness and civilization. In the left foreground the wild untamed landscape represented by a large, thunderstruck tree amid a tangle of bush. This gives way to the far view, which takes up most of the right-hand side of the painting, depicting a peaceful, populated and cultivated landscape intersected by the serpentine Connecticut River. While the wilderness is depicted as dark and the cultivated territory as light filled, Cole’s own feelings about human encroachment on the territory were decidedly ambivalent. It is not too difficult to feel the same ambivalence when we watch Quest For Fire and Clan Of The Cave Bear – how we humans came to our tendencies towards violence and acquisitiveness, and how these dark things coexist with our tendency to innovate and create, and to care for one another and cooperate.

Cole was engaged in painting ‘The Course of Empire’, the series The Savage State belongs to, and took time off from that to paint The Oxbow.

Director Michael Chapman, who is mainly known as a cinematographer (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) is on record as having a strong sensibility for art and painting and I wonder if perhaps he was influenced by Cole’s Oxbow, which is held in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

how artists and filmmakers depict pre-history CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR
this still from Clan seems to refer to Cole’s famous painting The Oxbow

THOMAS COLE The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton 1836) Source: wikimedia

Both movies are of their time: the 1980s. However, they display that era’s willingness to embrace stories that were really different. They tried to find ways of envisioning things that demanded a lot of imagination but were still very much rooted in realism. Today so many big-budget films are about worlds of pure fantasy that we have no real connection to (e.g. superhero films). It is interesting to see these pre-history films attempting to understand something real yet almost ungraspable and try to recreate it. It hardly matters that they don’t actually succeed.  Like Thomas Cole’s painting, they are trying to approach more significant themes and invite us to engage our brains in a vast imagining of the human story. In this respect, neither nor Quest for Fire nor even Clan Of The Cave Bear are escapist: they are challenging works of imagination that raised questions and in the end – through the vehicle of entertainment ­– they do invite us to confront ourselves.


[1] https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/quest-for-fire-1981 | https://siskelebert.org/?p=7076

[2] https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-clan-of-the-cave-bear-1986

Cole, T. (1833–1836)  The Savage State from ‘The Course of Empire’ [painting series]. New York: New York Historical Society. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Fair Use applies: critical and educational use

Cole, T. (1833–1836) The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton 1836) – Metropolitan Museum of Art, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=182973

Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir

History in Art and Film

Today’s painting depicts a moment in Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir which happened in Egypt during the war between Napoleonic France and Britain.  The history of what happened is explained below. This painting by Antoine-Jean Gros  Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799 is in the Palais de Versailles. 

Battle of Aboukir
Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799 Battle of Aboukir. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Fair Use applies, critical and educational use.
 

This is a good example of a ‘cinematic’ painting. Let’s consider the elements of what makes a painting ‘cinematic’

Let’s start with LIGHTING

Notice how the central part of the picture is much brighter and ‘lit’ even though this is supposed to be taking place outdoors in ‘natural’ light. The sense of brightness is created by the placement of white things in the centre of the picture, rather than any suggestion of a change in the natural lighting. This is a good example of the painter Antoine-Jean Gros’s fidelity to realism, within the context of a highly dramatic setting and action. Gros’s main body of work depicts Napoleon, and he did a great job of it; I will be posting more essays about his paintings.

Battle of Aboukir detail

COLOUR

Gros uses three main colours in this picture; yellow, red and white. Yellow (shades from yellow to brown) is the colour of nature – the dust and earth of Egypt. White appears in the clothing of some of the figures, but in the main, it is the colour of Napoleon’s horse that stands out. Red is very dominant; redness forms a circle around all the centre whiteness. it’s a striking effect.

Battle of Aboukir detail
RED!!

MOVEMENT

Paintings can’t move, but the ‘cinematic’ painting very often gives the illusion of movement, usually through the gestures of the figures or through the use of dynamic composition such as strong diagonals horizontals and verticals that indicate that something is moving through space. Even though we don’t see it moving, we can easily understand that it is moving. When we look at paintings such as this one we really get to see the dynamism of movement as a painted illusion. Here movement is indicated in the centre of the painting by the diagonal positioning of the standard, which slices through this section of the painting in a very strong diagonal line. It is also red, which almost gives it a sense of being like a sword slash, through the painting. The gestures of the figures, with outreaching arms and the twist of the bodies, also indicates movement. The whole painting feels as though it is vibrating with movement, writhing and alive.

Battle of Aboukir detail
 
MOVEMENT – THE DIAGONAL!
podcast by Gillian Mciver of The Battle of Aboukir

Cinema Battles

This kind of highly dramatic realism is very common in cinema. In art history, painting something so that it looks as though it is really there or really happening, is often referred to as ‘naturalism’. The struggle and the figures look natural even though as a depiction of the actual battle of Aboukir, I’d seriously question how ‘realistic’ it actually is. I mean, why would the man at the feet of Napoleon’s horse be stark naked? It’s really unlikely the Ottoman troops would go into battle stark naked or wearing clothes that fall off really easily. As a depiction of Colonial History, the Battle of Aboukir may not be realistic but it is spirited.

However, from a dramatic point of view, it allows the painter to demonstrate the vulnerability of the Ottoman soldiers (and the weakness of their position) overcome by the magnificent French troops under Napoleon. Additionally, it allows Gros to show off his ability to paint the human figure. Of course, if we were to try to re-create this battle for cinema we really couldn’t get away with showing this nudity, not for decency reasons but because it would actually be completely ridiculous. In fact, even in this picture, it’s completely ridiculous but somehow painting gets away with it.

The depiction of battles in cinema has a long history and has produced some extremely interesting scenes in films but these scenes are difficult to shoot. Partly because unlike in painting, is difficult to get single compositions within the frame so that one can focus on specific incidents. However, painting is a good guide for the filmmaker. Lighting, compositions use of colour and gesture in paintings can inspire the filmmaker because it demonstrates very clearly what is effective and engaging to the eye.

Some great battles in cinema history:

Omaha Beach Saving Private Ryan

The Street Protest Turned Battle, The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Braveheart – The Battle Of Falkirk

Apocalypse Now, Helicopter Beach Assault

Waterloo (1970), The Charge Of The Cuirassiers

Gladiator, Battle In Germania

Glory (1989), The Storming of Fort Wagner

Zulu (1964), The Battle of Rourke’s Drift

The History

What Actually Happened at Aboukir?

There were several battles called Battle of Aboukir (or Abu Qir) during the period of war between Napoleon’s France and Great Britain.

You may be familiar with the battle of Trafalgar which is commemorated in London’s Trafalgar Square, although Trafalgar itself is in Spain You may be familiar with the battle of Waterloo which is commemorated in Britain by a railway station and a bridge and is also the name of a town in Ontario, Canada – as well as a number of towns in the English speaking world. But the actual Waterloo is in Belgium.

The point is,  often we understand history through particular moments but we don’t understand how those moments arrived. How on earth did the French and the Turks and later the British end up having a fight at a place with an obviously non-European name like Abu Qir?

Where is Aboukir?

here it is!
Modern City of Alexandria to the left, the bay on the right

Abou Qir is in Egypt; you can go there*: it’s  a town on the Mediterranean coast near the ruins of ancient Canopus 23 kilometers northeast of Alexandria. It is located on a peninsula, with Abu Qir Bay to the east. The bay is where, on 1 August 1798, Horatio Nelson fought the Battle of the Nile, often referred to as the “Battle of Aboukir Bay”, an event also painted by Philip James De Loutherbourg (1800) among others.

The battle depicted by Gros took place a year later on land between between the French expeditionary army and the Turks under Mustapha Pasha (acting as an ally and agent of the British, though the Ottomans later switched sides). The French claimed it as a victory but it didn’t resolve anything.

Two years later they fought the Battle of Alexandria (aka Battle of Canope), on 21 March 1801 between the French army under General Menou and the British expeditionary army under Sir Ralph Abercromby, who died in the battle . after this the British marched on Alexandria and laid siege to the city.

*I’ve been very near to it but didnt actulay make it there. Next time!

Colonialism depicted

There are no paintings of the siege of Alexandria, or what happened in this essentially civilian city. Alexandria was one of the most important cities in the eastern Mediterranean. There’s no record left by Europeans of the suffering that happened to Egyptians as a result of being caught in the crossfire between two European empires and the dying, opportunistic Turkish empire.  

As you can see there’s something very uncomfortable and disconcerting about the idea of British and French and Turkish armies battling it out on Egyptian soil.

What is interesting about Gros’s painting is that, for all its attempt to depict the excitement of battle and the man on the White Horse as a symbol of European domination, when you know the actual history, the painting becomes a testament to the brutality of the colonial project, whether it’s English, French or Ottoman.  It’s a very honest picture of what was at the root of colonialism: violence. A testament to real Colonial History The Battle of Aboukir is an important painting and we shouldn’t forget about it.  

If you want to see more of Colonial History the Battle of Aboukir by Antoine-Jean Gros  [Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799] is in the Palais de Versailles.


Note: the colonisation of Egypt

Europeans were very aware of Egypt and regularly train traded with this outpost of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt had not been an independent country since the Roman conquest and by the 18th century was firmly established as a very lucrative, revenue-giving province of the Ottoman Empire. The French had considered trying to get hold of  Egypt for over 100 years but the expedition that sailed under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 was connected with revolutionary France’s war against Britain. Napoleon hoped that, by occupying Egypt, he would damage British trade with the East Indies and strengthen his hand in bargaining. But he had other aims. He wanted to free Egypt from the ottomans and establish it as a progressive territory of Revolutionary France, Egypt was to be regenerated and would regain its ancient prosperity. Together with his military and naval forces, Napoleon sent a commission of scholars and scientists to investigate and report the past and present condition of the country.

 

Adieu Bonaparte

The story of Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt is told very sensitively and dramatically in the film Adieu Bonaparte by the Egyptian film maker Yousseff Chahine. The great actor Michel Piccoli plays one of the French scientist-engineers sent by Napoleon (who appears in the film played by Patrice Chereau) and his relationship with Ali, a young Egyptian man caught between traditional culture and his resentment at the reality of colonialism,  and his fascination with European science. The film is available in French and Arabic .


WRITTEN BY GILLIAN MCIVER, 2017 CREATIVE COMMONS LICENSE Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International

SOME RIGHTS RESERVED YOU MAY SHARE, REPRODUCE, DISTRIBUTE, DISPLAY, AND MAKE ADAPTATIONS SO LONG AS YOU ATTRIBUTE IT TO GILLIAN MCIVER.

GILLIAN MCIVER IS THE AUTHOR OF ART HISTORY FOR FILMMAKERS (BLOOMSBURY PRESS) 2016 AVAILABLE AT ALL GOOD BOOKSELLERS INCLUDING AMAZON AND THE REST

THE MOMENT OF SUSPENSE AND THE ‘CINEMATIC’

My favourite painting in the Wallace Collection, Perseus and Andromeda by the incomparable Titian. Painted in the 16th century (!!!) and as fresh as yesterday, it manages to capture the moment if suspense and high danger as Perseus hurtles towards the sea monster while Andromeda, terrified, looks in. I like the way Titian does NOT sexualise her; her nudity shows her vulnerability not her allure.
I visit this painting often. It really taught me about the “moment of suspense” as a visual image.