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The Emergence of Human Figuration

in memory of Sylvain Gagnière, dean of Provençal archeologists

Surrounded today in self-image, we readily forget how slowly we first came to represent our own features, to give some kind of graphic form to our own physical presence. Indeed, in the immensely long history of prehistoric figuration, we're the last "subject" to emerge. We come, it might be said, to complete the bestiary. Carved into limestone, rounded out of clay, or simply scratched across the slate surface of some talismanic plaque, the human face arrives, finally, as a kind of belated gesture: a conclusive act.

Yes, slowly, hesitatingly, we come to depict ourselves. We enter the mirror of our own self-realization almost despite ourselves: despite, that is, some deeply hidden, atavistic reserve. That face, at first, for all its human attributes, doesn't depict an individual so much as a spirit, a demiurge, an entity endowed with certain human features but placed in a context that remains essentially "dehumanized." In Provence, for instance, the first faces—the first anthropomorphic figurations, that is—represent tutelary spirits. Associated with necropolises, they were charged, we can only assume, with the transmutation of the souls


of the dead. Carved on flat, limestone slabs, these late Neolithic funerary figures belonged to a world of shadows, to that flickering space in which the dead themselves transited: that dark, transparent interstice between the here and the hereafter.

Discovered usually quite by chance, these stelae have been unearthed over the years by farmers during their deep winter plowings or uncovered by masons while restoring, say, a crumbling drystone wall. Often, grave goods dating from the same period (2400–2200 B.C. ) have been discovered within the immediate area, confirming the relation of these early anthropomorphic artifacts with funerary rites. Even more determinate, bits of terra-cotta coffers for housing cinerary remains have been discovered near Trets in the Var within the same archeological milieu as fragments from fifteen individual stelae. Everywhere throughout the Mediterranean basin, idols, statuettes, statue menhirs, and slabs such as these, dating from the same period, have been discovered in (or in the immediate area of) burial pits, collective tombs, crematoria. What in each case we're witnessing here—from the Cyclades in the Aegean to Galicia on the Iberian Peninsula—is the birth, within a sepulchral context, of human figuration. We'd at last come to fashion our very likeness.

More than any other feature, it's the abundant head of hair, executed in champlevé, that distinguishes the first Provençal stelae (les stèles à chevrons ). The geometric patterns employed in the representation of this feature—lozenge, herringbone, zigzag—have often been compared to stellar configurations. The hair seems to ripple in a thick, wickerlike weave of constellated points. Some prehistorians, however, have interpreted these motifs as aquatic, as that of running or tumbling water. One interpretation, of course, needn't exclude another. Hair, star, and water: the human, the stellar, and the aquatic might readily co-


Late Neolithic funerary stele from 
Photo courtesy Musée Calvet, Avignon.


exist within the same symbolic field as representative of three simultaneous levels of apprehension.

There is one argument, however, that would tend to favor an aquatic interpretation. This particular civilization (distantly related to the lake-dwelling Lagozzian in northern Italy) invariably inhabited sites within easy reach of running water. The sites themselves, usually situated on hillocks, all overlook rivers. We may assume that these people had been driven down out of the surrounding plateaus for any number of reasons: a severe climate, prevalent everywhere in the western Mediterranean at that time, would have caused drought and penury; massive campaigns of deforestation for the sake of clearing pastureland would have created, in turn, land erosion; and the abusive practice of denshiring would have resulted in an even greater exhaustion of the topsoil. These people, living as they did near riverbeds in the latter half of the third millennium B.C. , undoubtedly supplemented their diet with trout, salmon, and crayfish. The waters just beneath and the star-studded heavens just above might well have been emblematic, in their eyes, of existence itself. Significantly enough, these first, emergent portraits were endowed with a rich cosmological decor, redolent of the natural world that surrounded their scattered riverine settlements.

We have, then, human figuration: the inaugural appearance, in this particular part of the Neolithic world, of a face, despite a high level of stylization. Framed within that abundant head of hair, we find (in most cases) a rectangle in which a pair of eyes and a nose have been carved in relief. The nose and the closely abutting pair of eyes have often been interpreted as representing the male genitals; below, at the base of the empty rectangle (clearly suggesting the face itself), a narrow passage, that of the neck, has often been read as representing the vagina. Here again, we're not obliged to choose between diverse


interpretations. At separate levels, they might readily coexist, one superimposed upon the other. Subliminally, the genitalia might well lie, graphically coded, beneath the apparent figuration of the face itself.

More than any other feature depicted on these Provençal stelae, however, it's the mouth or, rather, the absence of mouth, that has drawn scholars' attention. "Throughout all of Mediterranean Europe," writes André d'Anna, "these anthropomorphic representations are characterized by that same, somewhat puzzling omission."[1] We mustn't forget that we've entered, here, a world of shadows, a netherworld in which the dead, freshly interred, had already begun evolving toward an afterlife. Death, of course, is silent. And these tutelary figures, charged as they were with the transmutation of souls, represented passage: an intermediary zone between the realm of the deceased and that of the resuscitated. As such, they're portrayed mute. What's more, as d'Anna points out, they're portrayed deaf: they're not only devoid of mouths, but ears. Linguistically speaking, we've entered a kind of suspended hiatus between one "language" and another, one "existence" and the next. The absence of speech, however, doesn't exclude that of sight, for these guardian spirits seem to gaze from their flat limestone slabs with astonishing intensity. By their gaze alone, they seem endowed with the power to induce, conduct, deliver. We might even speculate that we've entered (at least within the transitory context of that muffled decor) a level of metaphysical apprehension monopolized by sight and sight alone. Here, it's the gaze—attentive, anticipatory—that's charged, it would seem, with all cognition.

It's no mere coincidence that these first figurative representations happen to depict anthropomorphic spirits rather than individuals proper. Hovering in that


half-world between the here and the hereafter—between, that is, the human and the divine—they're the first manifestations of an emergent religiosity. Everywhere, now, throughout the Neolithic world, an entirely new conception of existence had come into play. At no other moment, perhaps, in the history of consciousness would humankind undergo such a sense of rupture with its own past and such a need to reevaluate itself in the light of so many fresh determinants. What, indeed, did happen at that very moment? What essentially was the cause for such an absolute cleavage in human consciousness? That "moment" varies according to the region involved, according to the slow but inexorable sweep westward of the Neolithic Revolution. If, however, that "moment" varies in time according to the area in question, typologically it remains identical. For it occurs whenever a given society moves from predation to production, from an economy based on hunting and gathering to one of farming and stockbreeding. The "moment," then, is that pivotal instant in which humankind, dependent from its very origin on the bounty of nature, discovers the means by which it can determine—within the given limits of soil, climate, and its first rudimentary agrarian techniques—the production of its own food supply. This represents, of course, an immense triumph over the precarious conditions under which humankind had always sought to sustain itself. It also happens to mark, however, an absolute severance with the past. We'd now come to plant, tend, and harvest what we had always been given; come to wrest from nature what nature had always provided. Within the tight weave of an ecological fabric, a rent suddenly appears. Between humankind and nature, a sense of rupture, removal, separation replaces that of an essential, deep-seated unity. In coming into our own as food producers, we'd have quite unwittingly "broken contract." That sense of rupture, of ever-increasing removal, would have an all-determinate effect on our psychic structure. In considering our-


selves, now, as separable and separate entities, we'd have entered, in Hegelian terms, a state of "self-consciousness." We'd have begun seeing ourselves, that is, as something other than and different from creatures belonging to a single, inextricable creation. In short, in coming to control our own food supply, we'd have acquired a separate status .

Ineluctably, a sense of alienation would arise out of that instigating "moment," that act of primal violation. On a mythological level, it would find expression (at a somewhat later date) in Prometheus's theft of the thunderbolt from the gods overhead, and—in its Judeo-Christian counterpart—Adam's theft of the forbidden apple from the garden. In each case, disgrace, humiliation, would be the price exacted, what humankind would have to pay for having "seized control."

Recognizing ourselves as separate entities, as if extracted from the matrix of that aboriginal unity, we'd begin seeing ourselves, portraying ourselves, as discrete creatures. In that ever-growing "self-consciousness," we'd begin carving our first deliberately figurative, anthropomorphic representations. At the very outset, however, it isn't ourselves we portray but, as already mentioned, those guardians, those figures stationed halfway between the human and the divine. One might even say, at this particular stage, that the separation between the two hadn't yet been totally consummated, that the "moment" is slow in realizing itself, that the initial matrix is reluctant to divide. Indeed, the history, the prehistory, of human consciousness and its subsequent manifestations as art over the next millennia would be increasingly dominated by that division. For at the very same time that we would come to recognize ourselves—realize ourselves—as separate entities, we would come to project our first divinities. One evinces the other. Self-realization, admitting as it does to difference, separation and, ultimately, loss, produces—in compensation—its


estranged counterpart in the form of gods, divine projections. We cannot see and depict who we are , finally, without seeing and depicting who we aren't . "A vertical topology begins to develop at the heart of the human psyche," writes Jacques Cauvin, "in which an initial state of anguish finally dissipates, but only at the price of an intense mental effort in an ascensional direction. That effort is experienced as an appeal to a divine instance that is both beyond and above humankind itself."[2]

It would go well past the limited ambitions of this essay to trace the iconographic development of figuration as it divides, at this point, into those two increasingly distinct domains. Suffice to say that that development, beginning with so many anonymous, highly stylized funerary markers throughout the entire Mediterranean basin, would grow increasingly individuated, self-personifying, in the effigiation of both the human and the divine. One, indeed, would mirror the other: face and its inaccessible counterface; flesh and the hallucinatory canonization of spirit; humankind, in short, and its divinities. Irresoluble, the twin character of this dialectic would come to express, in Cauvin's words, "the anthropological effects of a deep-seated malaise ."[3]

For the moment, however, we're still at the very outset of human representation. With these early Provençal stelae, we're witnesses to nothing more or less than that auroral moment in human consciousness in which we first came to see ourselves as something separable, something other, something different from the creatures of an indissoluble creation. Slowly, hesitatingly, we would come to mime our own physiognomy in these mute and, as yet, asexual (or simply androgynous) figurations. At the same time, we'd have begun hoeing the earth, harvesting its grain, and stocking its produce in ceramic receptacles: taking, in short, the first decisive steps toward the eventual control of our natural milieu. We would never stop, either. The history of humanity


(as, alas, we well know) would be the history of that domination on an ever-accelerating scale. Spreading our control over all living matter, we'd come to discover the secret source of energy itself, hidden at the very heart of the seemingly inviolable molecule. Concurrently, portraiture would assume (at least in certain quarters) hyperrealistic proportions.

Slowly, hesitatingly, we would come to recognize ourselves, reflected in these very first mirrors of self-realization. Here in Provence, toward the end of the third millennium B.C. , these anthropomorphic figurations bear witness to that moment, that passage leading to self-awareness. With them, we'd come to admit to our freshly acquired status as separate entities in the midst of a hitherto inseparable ensemble, a naturally constituted unity. Despite that deep, atavistic reserve, we'd slowly but inexorably enter that exile we'd come to call selfhood, individuation. Almost despite ourselves, we'd acquire, finally, our isolated identities.


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