Shotgun Reviews

Art of Prehistoric Times: Rock Paintings from the Frobenius Collection at the Martin-Gropius-Bau

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Robert J. Kett reviews Art of Prehistoric Times: Rock Paintings from the Frobenius Collection at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.

Albert Hahn. Hand Silhouettes, Fish and Moon, 1937; watercolor; 26 x 37 in. Courtesy of Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin. © Frobenius-Institut Frankfurt am Main.

Albert Hahn. Hand Silhouettes, Fish and Moon, 1937; watercolor; 26 x 37 in. Courtesy of the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin. © Frobenius-Institut Frankfurt am Main.

In a 1955 lecture on the ancient cave paintings at Lascaux, Georges Bataille worried, “But what if the present-day world follows us in our exploration? […] Do we not risk remaining in our present-day world? And only rather indirectly glimpsing from afar the reflection of a world that has vanished, a world which I said had become inaccessible.”[1]

On display at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin is a singular collection where present and lost worlds meet: a group of painted facsimiles of prehistoric rock art from the archive of German ethnologist and archaeologist Leo Frobenius. The result of a maniacal effort of scientific archive-building in the early 20th century, the collection was subsequently recruited as a resource for the elaboration of a new modern art in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (1937), ICA London (1948), and elsewhere.

These massive canvases have the power to envelop, offering a phenomenological approximation of what it might be like to sit in a remote cave looking at some of the oldest “art” in the world. (Indeed, the galleries provide a near global tour.) However, the impression of being in the cave quickly yields to observing pencil marks, the distinct wash of watercolor on paper, and painstakingly constructed stone surfaces. The vibrant red of hand silhouettes was not blown onto stone in prehistory but minutely applied much more recently—a reproduction of ancient effect far removed from the performative inscriptions so admired in prehistoric art. The works index an exacting attempt to recapture prehistoric art’s “feeling of unlimited richness,” the loss of which Bataille so lamented in reflecting on our contemporary distance from prehistory.[2]

The exhibition offers tantalizing glimpses of the labors entailed in this artistic emulation of ancient reality. The galleries feature images illustrating the tracing, sketching, and painting of a single subject, and also include photographs of Frobenius’ army of artists and the paint tubes they left at prehistoric sites.

Yet much goes undiscussed in the space of the gallery, most critically the fact that most of the copies shown were executed by women artists to fuel the science of men. And while the exhibition says much about prehistoric rock art and its unexpected afterlife through modernism, it could pay more attention to the space between the ancient and the modern—the acts of translation, mediation, and craft involved in the manufacture of the scientific images we see in the gallery. It is precisely this interstitial space that makes these works—prehistoric and present, simultaneously objects, evidence, and art—such a rich site for thinking through the many murky powers of the image.

Art of Prehistoric Times: Rock Paintings from the Frobenius Collection is on view through May 16, 2016, at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin.

Robert J. Kett is a curator, writer, and researcher based in Berlin and Los Angeles. He received his PhD from the University of California, Irvine, and is currently a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science.

[1] Georges Bataille, “Lecture, January 18, 1955,” The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture, ed. Stuart Kendall (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 94.

[2] Ibid., 98.