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Head of Odysseus

Notes on How Art Made the World – Once Upon a Time 4/5

In this BBC series from 2004, Dr Nigel Spivey investigates everything from cave paintings to ceramics, pyramids to palaces and icons to artifacts across five continents and 100,000 years of history.

Although this one isn’t available online, you can rent it from LoveFilm (or Netflix) and failing that, it is available in Amazon UK and Amazon.com there is also an excellent micro-site on the PBS website with in-depth information and links.

Episode 4 explores the role art has played in telling stories.

How Art Made the World : Episode 4, Once Upon a Time

See notes on the previous episode, the Art of Persuasion
See notes on the next episode, to Death and Back Again

What role did art play in the telling of stories, when did we start using art this way and how has modern cinema still using techniques first devised by ancient artists.

The investigation starts with the oldest recorded story, that of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. The story tells the tales (and adventures) of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  One scene from the story, in particular, captured the imagination of bronze age man, and that was the slaying of a pride of lions. The story inspired the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal, in around 645bc, to cast himself as the leading role of Gilgamesh in a series of carved friezes for his throne room. The success of these lead Ashurbanipal to depict the battle against the Elamites and in particular visualised the prisoners grinding their ancestors bones to make their bread. Although mankind had discovered the power of the protagonist, in particular in that of a hero, Ashurbanipal’s stories lacked emotion and so are hard to engage with.

Jumping forward several hundred years to the Ancient Greeks, we find the next missing element crucial to storing telling. In the grotto of the Villa de Tiberius in Spurlonga, Italy, a collection of sculptures were found that depict Odysseus‘s encounter with the cyclops. The statues show Odysseus getting the cyclops drunk and then tricking him, and driving a stake though his eye. By depicting the emotions in the scene we, as the viewer, get a greater connection with the story. If we care about the characters, we care about what happens next.

Head of Odysseus

Head of Odysseus

The Romans refined this process more when Emperor Trajan, celebrated his conquer of the Dacians, and created Trajan’s column in the heart of Rome. The 35m high marble column is has the story of the event, spiraling around the column, from the base, right to the very top. Admired by Napoleon and Mussolini, it depicts an Epic with Trajan as the protagonist hero and the Dacian king Decebalus as the antagonist. The sculptors used many visual techniques still used today such as cut scenes, and birds eye and low views to add drama. The whole story can be summarised by looking up the western axis of the column. Although this captivated viewers there was still something missing.

The final piece in the jigsaw can be found in Australia which has some of oldest known painted images, some known to be over 40k years old. The aborigines still draw gods and spirits the same way their early ancestors did, for example images of barramundi fish. This consistency has lead to these images becoming symbols, triggering the viewer to recall well known stories passed down generation to generation. The real magic happened when the Aborigines came together to celebrate these stories, they recounted them adding drum beats, rhythm and chanting. Now two senses were being stimulated, the eyes and the ears.

When the pioneers of the 19th century created the first moving images, they were silent, but as soon as cinematographers added sound, cinema as we know it today took off.

See notes on the previous episode, the Art of Persuasion
See notes on the next episode, to Death and Back Again

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