Préhistomania: Exploring prehistoric art through time

From the Trocadéro Square in Paris and until May 20, 2024, the Préhistomania exhibition showcases the drawings and engravings of prehistoric caves made by teams of scientists in the early 20th century. It tells the story of these legendary pioneering expeditions in search of prehistoric artworks and their profound influence on modern art.

Sixty drawings from caves and rock shelters, collected by hand by French and German scientific teams during the 20th century, have emerged from the reserves of the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and the Frobenius Institute in Frankfurt. These life-sized paper drawings, which had not been brought together for decades, form the heart of Préhistomania. It’s a moving encounter with the landscapes, fauna, flora, and customs of our distant past, all seen through the eyes of these anonymous and ingenious prehistoric artists.

The birth of « Préhistomania »

The adventure of recording prehistoric artworks began in the late 19th century with the initial discovery in 1879 of magnificent cave paintings in Altamira Cave, Spain. Soon, other decorated and/or engraved sites were discovered in Europe, then Africa, and eventually all over the world. Since these prehistoric sites were often remote and difficult to access, France and Germany, two colonial powers administering vast territories, particularly in Africa, sent scientific teams to make colored recordings. These recordings aimed to enrich the knowledge of rock art and introduce them to artists and the general public who genuinely enthused over these incredibly beautiful works.
The initiator of these exhibitions was the German anthropologist Frobenius, who had been passionate about Africa since childhood. He led major expeditions around the world from the 1910s and organized large exhibitions in Europe and North America during the 1930s that fueled public « préhistomania. » Notably, in 1933, at the Museum of Ethnography at the Trocadéro (which became the Musée de l’Homme in 1937) and at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. At that time, Alfred Barr, the director of MoMA, chose to present the recordings of these prehistoric artworks, both figurative and abstract, alongside works by contemporary artists. Art critics and artists were astonished by the work of these painters from another age and the unfathomable connection of centuries. They began to talk about the « first surrealists » to refer to these anonymous artists emerging from the depths of time. Contemporary artists found a powerful source of inspiration, which would be reflected in their later works.
The exhibition pays tribute to these great pioneers who spent thousands of hours in sometimes challenging conditions to create these records. They include Henri Breuil, the « Pope of prehistory » (who authenticated Altamira Cave and was an abbot), Leo Frobenius, Henri Lhote, for the beautiful records he made in Algeria’s Tassili n’Ajjer, and Gérard Bailloud, who introduced this Saharan region of Chad, the Ennedi, to the world.
Large photographic prints highlight the prominent role women played in expeditions as scientists, especially in Leo Frobenius’s teams. It shows Frobenius as a man of many qualities, combining a feminist personality with anti-racism in a dark era (the 1930s) when this criminal ideology unfortunately prevailed. It is revealed that Frobenius, passionate about Africa and its culture, refused to endorse the « inferiority of African races » to the Nazi authorities who requested his approval – as they sought the endorsement of a reputed scientist – by invariably replying that the notion of a plurality of human races was foolishness.
The exhibition’s final section focuses on the archaeological methods replacing hand recordings today, long banned due to their invasive nature. However, it must be recognized that the old hand recordings preserved paintings that have since disappeared. Because these works are fragile and must be preserved, one way to do this, alongside site protection and security, is to continue documenting through modernized, non-invasive recording technology the art of these prehistoric men. Their aesthetic emotions before the world, through paintings as strange as the « God of Sefar, » which for some might border on the supernatural and for others on Lovecraftian cosmic horror, have been conveyed. But will the consumption of centuries – and science is unable to answer – ever tell us what the first artists saw in the darkness?

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