Staying Alive

On the benefits of not knowing 

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. 

Jennifer Higgie is the editorial director of frieze.

Issue 6

First published in Issue 6

October 2017

Most Read

Ignoring its faux-dissident title, this year's edition at the New Museum displays a repertoire that is folky, angry,...
An insight into royal aesthetics's double nature: Charles I’s tastes and habits emerge as never before at London’s...
In other news: Artforum responds to #NotSurprised call for boycott of the magazine; Maria Balshaw apologizes for...
At transmediale in Berlin, contesting exclusionary language from the alt-right to offshore finance
From Shanghai to Dubai, a new history charts the frontiers where underground scenes battle big business for electronic...
Hauser & Wirth Somerset, Bruton, UK
Zihan Karim, Various Way of Departure, 2017, video still. Courtesy: Samdani Art Foundation
Can an alternative arts network, unmediated by the West's commercial capitals and burgeoning arts economies of China...
‘That moment, that smile’: collaborators of the filmmaker pay tribute to a force in California's film and music scenes...
In further news: We Are Not Surprised collective calls for boycott of Artforum, accuses it of 'empty politics'; Frida...
We Are Not Surprised group calls for the magazine to remove Knight Landesman as co-owner and withdraw move to dismiss...
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film is both gorgeous and troubling in equal measure
With Zona Maco opening in the city today, a guide to the best exhibitions across the Mexican capital
The question at the heart of Manchester Art Gallery’s artwork removal: what are the risks when cultural programming...
In further news: Sonia Boyce explains removal of Manchester Art Gallery’s nude nymphs; Creative Scotland responds to...
Ahead of the India Art Fair running this weekend in the capital, a guide to the best shows to see around town
The gallery argues that the funding body is no longer supportive of institutions that maintain a principled refusal of...
The Dutch museum’s decision to remove a bust of its namesake is part of a wider reconsideration of colonial histories,...
At New York’s Metrograph, a diverse film programme addresses a ‘central problem’ of feminist filmmaking
Ronald Jones pays tribute to a rare critic, art historian, teacher and friend who coined the term Post-Minimalism
In further news: curators rally behind Laura Raicovich; Glasgow's Transmission Gallery responds to loss of Creative...
Nottingham Contemporary, UK
‘An artist in a proud and profound sense, whether he liked it or not’ – a tribute by Michael Bracewell
Ahead of a show at Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum, how the documentarian’s wandering gaze takes in China’s landscapes of...
In further news: Stedelijk explains why it cancelled Ettore Sottsass retrospective; US National Gallery of Art cancels...
With 11 of her works on show at the Musée d'Orsay, one of the most underrated artists in modern European history is...
Reopening after a two-year hiatus, London’s brutalist landmark is more than a match for the photographer’s blockbuster...
What the Google Arts & Culture app tells us about our selfie obsession
At a time of #metoo fearlessness, a collection of female critics interrogate their own fandom for music’s most...
A rare, in-depth interview with fashion designer Jil Sander

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

October 2017

frieze magazine

November - December 2017

frieze magazine

January - February 2018