Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Part 1: A Travelogue in Art: From Paleolithic to Colonial Period



Dr Abe V Rotor

This article is part of an upcoming book,
Humanities Today - An Experiential Approach, written jointly by Dr Kristine Molina-Doria and AV Rotor.


“We know from records how art developed and influenced man and his society throughout history, but we can only surmise today at its role in postmodern time.” - AVR


Ruins of Colonialism, Mural (8ft x 8ft), (AV Rotor), former St. Paul University QC.

Art began at the dawn of civilization. It started in cave dwellings of early man then found its way to some fertile plains where nomadic man started to settle down, evidently in Mesopotamia and other known cradles of civilization in Asia and Africa. Since then art and culture grew together.

Art developed with the discovery of early tools for the home and field. Symbols were drawn on rocks, animal skin and bark of trees as early records. Sounds developed into words, and melodies. Early weapons like the spear and shield were highly decorated, more so after a victorious battle. The string of a bow led early man to invent the lyre, and other early stringed instruments. The use of the bow-and-arrow led to sports other than for hunting and war, which consequently developed the art of worship and rituals, in celebrating victories, and giving respect to the dead.

Art is to man’s credit, but his model and source of inspiration is nature. The rainbow made him wonder, the stars made him wish, thunder and lightning humbled him, creatures of all kinds made him feel important, the coming and passing of seasons marked his activities and leisure. He learned from Nature the various forms of art, in fact many fields of learning.

The pyramid is a man-made mountain, the boat a dugout piece of log, a fort came from the idea of an isolated island, a bridge from a rock promontory, the wheel from a rolling stone, temple from a cave of glittering stalactites and stalagmites. He copied the intricate architecture of the termite mound for his buildings, the unique designs of nature to express function and beauty. He studied how birds fly, build their nest, and flock together. He wondered at the mystery of living things, describing and copying them, mimicked their looks, dances and songs. Nature indeed has been man’s greatest teacher.

Beyond discovery and invention, man added aesthetics – that high sense of beauty. It is this innate desire that is expressed in his art – an expression emanating from within influenced by experience and the environment. It is a kind of longing, a pouring out of emotion, a romantic gesture, a symbol of thought or idea, a puzzle of a game or test. Often art poses a question itself, as it offers fulfillment, or therapy. But art, differentiated from science, takes the road of imagination and creativity more than reason, the dialectics of logic, and formality of philosophy. Art takes man to the road of freedom, it liberates his mind to explore, to experience and express, in the world of imagination and fantasy, distorting reality and elevating emotion, and stimulating the psyche, ascendant to aesthetic level.

If art grew with civilization, it must have its early beginning with our Stone Age ancestors. Earlier than that, art – if it is called art – is associated with instinctive ways basically in response to the needs of survival like mimicry, nesting, and cooperation shared biologically with other creatures. In reckoning the beginning of art, it is in the Paleolithic and Neolithic times dating as far back as 25,000 BC. Paintings inside caves are clearly art and history combined. These cave paintings found in many parts of the world from Lascaux in France to Montalban, Rizal, are proofs of prehistoric culture, the most prominent being those of stone tools, funerary offerings, and articles of adoration and worship. The Stonehenge in Great Britain was built ingeniously as an observatory to plot the movement and position of stars and planets, to which early man asked favor while submitting his fate through worship and festivals. Similarly the tunnels of the Pyramids of Egypt have astronomical significance, so with the ziggurats of Central America.

Imagine Stone Age art in an early version of the Greek Venus, in decorated vases, tools and weapons, or in the form of specimens from hunted animals as memorabilia or talisman. Body paintings must have imitated animals, or simply signified position and rank in the tribe. Clothing evolved from function to art. Many ethnic cultures have been preserved to this day, and in fact the modern world built on them multi-million dollar industries in fashion and tourism.

The last prehistoric phase, the Metal Age, is characterized by a proliferation of metallic crafts, from weapons to body ornaments. Discovery of burial chambers yielded rich metallic decors of gold and silver, swords and spears in advanced metallurgy in this period, shields and armors revolutionized war. And because of the precious value and malleability of metals, various objects of art were made from them and became artifacts of today, many are displayed in museums.

Art in Ancient times reached its peak with the Wonders of the Ancient World, with Greece and later Rome at the peak of power. “The glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome…” became a metaphoric adage, and true to their superior achievements, the Greco-Roman model was adopted by the Renaissance, one and one-half millennia later - in the fifteen century. Unfortunately of the seven man-made wonders of the ancient world, only the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt survives. The rest - Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, Colossus of Rhodes and Lighthouse of Alexandria, were destroyed by earthquake or fire. The inclusion of other man-made wonders include the Coliseum of Rome, Karnak Temple of Egypt, Petra of Jordan and in other parts of the world, the Great Wall of China, Taj Mahal of India, Machu Picchu in Peru, Bali in Indonesia, Bagan Temples and Pagodas of Burma, Borobodor of Indonesia, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Teotihuacan in Mexico, the Forbidden City of China. Last, but not the least, the Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines.

The Middle Ages often referred to as the Dark Ages was a long lull in arts, particularly in the western world, whereas on the side of world, art flourished in China and other parts of Asia, and in Central and South America (Aztec, Maya and Inca civilizations). The former Roman Empire disintegrated into warring fiefs or kingdoms, yet romantically yielded stories of fantasy and bed time stories handed down to us. (Children stories from the Grimm Brothers, and Hans Anderson; 1001 Arabian Nights)

It was in the 14th century that there was a stirring of man’s redemption from his woeful past - the Renaissance. The Renaissance brought new life and bridged the isolated corners of the world, so to speak. The Philippines became part of Renaissance Europe with its “discovery” by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521. For almost 400 years of Spanish rule we developed a culture greatly influenced by European civilization, except the remote ethnic communities.

The paintings of Juan Luna, Felix Hidalgo, Fernando Amorsolo strongly reveal European styles. Many of our dances are distinctly Spanish. Even Biag ni Lam-ang (Life of Lam-ang, an pic) was abridged with Spanish and Christian flavor. Towns founded during the Spanish period were basically of Roman design. It is because Spain was ruled by the Romans for centuries. Even our Zarzuela and Moro-moro are Western in origin, the latter depicting the victory of Christians over the Moors in the Arab world. But the greatest expression of European Renaissance in the Philippines in church architecture. A typical example of baroque architecture is San Agustin Church in Intramuros, while San Sebastian Church is expressly of gothic. The latter greatly influenced the Iglesia ni Cristo’s neo-gothic edifices.

Even before the era of colonization ended at the close of the 19th century, there was a movement sweeping Europe – Impressionism. This movement radically changed art. Classicism and Romanticism which were the dominant schools of art mainly with the elite bowed to the popular movement. Now people can reach a level of art related to their everyday life, their simple needs and aspirations. Even Realism took a step downward. Subjects are not viewed the way they are with details and accuracy; they are merely “impressions.” They are memories, dreams, views from the distance, and remnants of events and residues of thought. But this was but a transition to other movements at the close of the 19th century.

It was Vincent Van Gogh who opened a new meaning in art - expressionism - the freedom to bring out through art emotions and feelings, and not merely thoughts or ideas. It took years after its founder’s death that expressionism was accepted as a major movement, particularly with the birth of new nations out of the bondage of colonial rule. The trilogy of the French Revolution – Liberty, Fraternity and Equality became a universal cry, and America was the first to adapt the trilogy as pillars of its constitution. It greatly moved local leaders. Rizal wrote Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Juan Luna painted Spolarium a mural comparing the suffering Filipinos with the gladiators of Rome. The 1889 Philippine Independence aroused nationalism, although it was short lived with America placing the Philippines under its sovereign as a Commonwealth. Here is a mélange of art with American art further diluting an already losing Filipino identity.

Since the pioneers of America were mostly Europeans, American art was distinctly European. So with the art they introduced in the Philippines. Buildings during the Commonwealth were post-colonial – which is fundamentally Greco-Roman. The prominent examples are the Central Post Office, the old Congress and Senate, Agriculture, Finance, Supreme Court, Philippine General Hospital. All over the country neo-colonial architecture and design are still evident seventy years after our independence from America.

Continued...

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