Max Raphael and a Marxist perspective on art (Part 2)

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By starting a new heading of ‘Readers’ Contributions’ on our website, and occasionally in our paper, we hope to encourage our readers and sympathisers to write texts and articles which can go into greater depth than is possible in our discussion forum, and so stimulate a longer term reflection. These articles, while being broadly based on proletarian politics, need not fully represent the positions of the ICC, or may deal with issues on which the ICC does not have a collective view. The question of art is clearly such an issue, and we welcome Boxer’s effort to deepen our understanding of the marxist approach to humanity’s creative productions.

Part two: the Art of the Palaeolithic

In part one we blew a bit of dust off the surface of the question of art by taking up some of the marxist analyses of Max Raphael in relation to a ideological domain of art, which he said included the “sovereign nature of architecture” and the “importance of folk-poetry”. We attempted to look at the relations between different expressions in the domain of art, the relations between the domain of art and other ideologies, and also to the economic base from which these ideological expressions spring. Using an intriguing quote from Marx in Grundrisse we looked into the question of the “eternal nature” of Greek art, a seeming contradiction if art is linked to an economic base that’s since disappeared. Part of the answer to this question lies in the integral nature of Greek mythology which was generally shared in an immediate and pressing way due to the historical conditions. But it is with the cave paintings, engravings (and portable art) of the twenty-five-thousand-year long expressions of the Upper Palaeolithic that we are once again confronted with an “eternal nature” of art from a people whose magic and  mythology would have been even more pressing and widely shared in their spiritual production than that of the Greeks. Raphael has bought all his artistic and marxist criticism to bear on the question of Upper Palaeolithic art, on its possible meanings and spiritual depth. We will look at this below but first a slight diversion entirely in keeping with Raphael’s marxist approach to the period.

From the long “procession” on the Lion Panel at Chauvet Cave. Discovered in 1994, the paintings are around 33,000 years old and described by its discoverers as seeing “time stand still”. The paintings confirm Raphael’s analysis that detailed compositional art would date back to the Aurignacian, a period much earlier than the caves he studied. While there is powerful realism here there are also strange and human-like lions in the pride. The bison are shown in a typical pose and many other paintings over thousands of years indicate that the bison clan would have been the one that was composed of shamans and sorcerers.

The “eternal nature” of Upper Palaeolithic art

Around thirteen thousand years ago in a cave called Roc-aux-Sorciers of the Magdalenian period in Vienne, France, there were on the wall, amongst other profound expressions of art, three life-sized depictions of women deeply etched into the rock face in a natural and harmonious pose. Despite the damage done to them over time, they appear like floating, erotic goddesses. There are obvious similarities with these once-painted figures and the Classical and Renaissance trio of Graces, “But by far the most extraordinary thing about these figures is the mastery of perspective and the three-quarters view, as they half turn like dancers in a line”[i] as if they are ready to peel off and join the dance.  In the same period, on a cave wall in Tarn, France, there are reliefs of two reclining women, which again despite the damage, have “... caused a great deal of astonishment because of the mastery of perspective and easy freedom of pose with its foreshadowing of Classical and Renaissance art” (ibid). At Osatrava Petrkovice, in the Czech Republic, there is a small figure of a woman’s torso carved in hard, shiny black haematite. The piece comes from the Gravettian period some twenty-five thousand years ago, and draws these remarks from Nancy Sandars above: “In a setting that gives a weird foretaste of the Industrial Revolution with its coal and iron, the artist has produced a figure of touching naturalism and truth. The rugged quality in the work is probably due to the material but the slim, youthful figure has the proportions and even equilibrium (the weight on the right leg) of the late Classical Venus or of the three Graces”. I agree that the ruggedness of the latter carving is due to the material but the cubist appearance of this portable work also enhances its expressive nature and has similarities to the cubist appearance of the symbolic Acheulean “hand-axes” of at least half-a-million years ago, one of the first expressions of art.  The works of art on the walls of the Franco-Cantabrian caves studied by Raphael includes Les Combarelles and Font-de-Gaume in France and Altimira and Covalanas in Spain are expressed in the context of compositions that include certain animals and abstract “signs”, but their aesthetic qualities, their similarities and links with classical art are undeniable.

However, we do have to be careful here because a classical symmetry is not the rule on the cave walls; on the contrary asymmetric expressions abound. And animals, not classical human figures, are at the centre of Upper Palaeolithic art. I make this point about aesthetics because very recently the idea was still being put forward, in much the same way, of the “savage past of humanity”, of a development to a finer art from ignorant childlike beginnings. This view that has been soundly contradicted by the analyses of Max Raphael despite the greatly limited access of his sources and it has been further contradicted by many later discoveries since his book was written in 1945. Raphael wrote seventy years ago: “... the dogma that Palaeolithic paintings belong to so-called primitive art gained favour. It has been said that Palaeolithic artists were incapable of dominating surfaces or reproducing space: that they could produce only individual animals, not groups and certainly not compositions. The exact opposite of this is true: we find not only groups, but compositions that occupy the length of the cave wall or the surface of a ceiling; we find representations of space, historical paintings and even the golden section! But we find no primitive art”[ii].

Even apparently random patterns of squiggles, doodle-like appearances (sometimes called “macaronis”) that are widespread in the Upper Palaeolithic caves of Europe have a depth and expression of their own that’s not at all related to some sort of “primitive” expression as a basic stage in a linear development of prehistoric art[iii].  This finger-fluting – sometimes the areas of the soft cave walls have also been incised by some stone or other instrument – relate to hand prints and compositions of animals, with studies showing that in some cases under the “random” patterns lie representational images[iv]. Whatever we are looking at in these caverns at any time during the period of the Upper Palaeolithic, it is not “primitive” art. As abstractions alone there is a depth and consistency to these “doodles” that suggests a spiritual relationship to the cave wall and the cosmos which was believed to lay behind it. There’s no doubt that, along with the development of society, forms of art have suffered advances and regressions with some distinct expressions during the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods clearly being overthrown and superseded, with cave paintings being deliberately defaced and megalithic stones literally overturned, making way for new expressions. This is to be expected in art forms that, amongst other things, represent social organisation, spiritual belief and conflict as well as, as I’ll suggest below, the possible mediation and resolution of conflict, paving the conditions for advance in a situation which is dynamic rather than static. The reverse is also true in that the dynamics of art can turn to the status-quo which in its turn favours regression. Artistic techniques and the more cosmopolitan use of materials have certainly seen major developments over thousands of years, but the fundamentals of art are profoundly embedded in the prehistoric period of humanity and particularly in the Upper Palaeolithic whose peoples Raphael called “history-makers par excellence”[v]. Intuition would suggest that the roots of this art lie in Africa and our understanding of the global geographic dispersion that had its source in this continent would tend to support that view; the fundamentals appear in cave paintings in Australia and Salawasi, Indonesia around the same time and similar expressions occur at different times throughout Africa and into the Americas as it was colonised by humanity. 

The cave paintings of Chauvet in the Ardeche region of France, discovered 20 years ago and dating back to 33,000 years, and the paintings discovered last year in Salawesi, Indonesia dating back 40,000 years show, at least, the paucity of those who dismiss the artistic strength of early Palaeolithic artists - already underlined by the virulence and abuse of their arguments[vi] . Against these pernicious ideas the discoveries of Chauvet, Salawesi, Cosquer, Costlllo and many others, made decades after his book, confirm and strengthen the analyses of Max Raphael and, looking at them, can’t fail to again bring up the question of Marx’s “eternal charm” in a period whose specifics were totally unknown to him.

Magic, the science of the Upper Palaeolithic


The “birdman” from the depths of the Shaft at Lascaux. The painting is on a wall in a hardly accessible place with many spent lamps on the floor. Only one person could have possibly got in here at a time. The bison is wounded and an accompanying rhinoceros and horse looks fit. Surrounded by “signs” it seems some sort of magic is at work here and, while it’s very difficult to say what’s going on, the ithyphallic figure appears elsewhere at Trois-Freres, Ariege France with similar figures appearing elsewhere in the Magdalenian period. Birds are regular but unusual in Upper Palaeolithic art, appearing much more in later, Neolithic barbarian art. Also found in this “apse” were flint blades, ivory spears with signs on them, sea-shells from the 200 km distant Atlantic Coast which have been stained with red ochre.

We are not looking for the origins of art because these lay much deeper. What we want to look at is a particular expression within the domain of art: the Upper Palaeolithic cave paintings, etchings, engravings, scrapings and doodles, collectively called parietal art (as opposed to sculptured mobile art). These expressions, while the artist is also something of a magician, are not, in the main, solitary specialised functions (though they definitely are in places), but they belong to the whole of society and were no doubt recognised by the peoples of the time as such. Max Raphael says that these paintings tell us little about the functioning of society but then, as usual, very methodically, he tells us a great deal about just that: the clear relationship of the artistic superstructure to the economic base of hunter-gatherers, the organisation in families, the material means of production, the spiritual production, the importance of magic, the differentiations and conflict within a society that was by no means an idyll: “Upper Palaeolithic art shows faith in all natural beings and their affinity and the existence of an organisational force capable of translating magic into reality. This was the magic of the Palaeolithic age and its art. In the best Palaeolithic paintings are shown charges of energy that comes from an objective supernatural character and these charges are perpetrated through the existential intensification of the object.... (The) artist as a magician had all the powers of society at his[vii] disposal, inspired by the group who believed in and took magic and resurrection seriously... the physical and ideological forces of the social group were always there to translate the magic into actual or imagined reality”.[viii] Today, these paintings look modern but there is no art that is more alien and distant from us. Just as symmetry and balance is unusual in these works, then so is the depictions of individuals. We’ve already mentioned that, like the Greeks, the integral and generalised nature of prehistoric mythology favoured the development of an art form that was timeless: “Today, mankind, amidst enormous sacrifices and suffering is, with imperfect awareness, striving for a future in the eyes of which all our history will sink to the level of ‘prehistory’. Palaeolithic man was carrying out a comparable struggle. Thus the art most distant from us becomes the nearest; the most alien to us becomes the closest”[ix]. The basis of this art and its animal compositions is an expression of the conscious break from the animal kingdom and a drive forward to new and wider conditions of existence from a much earlier stage of humanity, involving the identification of obstacles in order to overcome them and move onto a new stage.  As in many areas of anthropology, we can’t mechanically reconstruct this period from ethnology – we’ve seen this danger elsewhere in ideas about the “primitive killer savages” of the past from today’s examples of isolated tribes that have descended into pure superstition.

For example, the totemism of today’s “primitive” peoples is nothing like that of prehistory. In this case, any resemblance between the “primitive” tribes of the 20th or 21st century and the Upper Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers, struggling against their clear and present dangers as well as their own internal conflicts, has to be treated with care, even if ethnological evidence can be a useful pointer and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. See for example the work of Jerome Lewis among the ‘pygmy’ tribes in the Congo which doesn’t point in the direction of “killer savages”[x]; and there are further examples, some of which are quoted below.

Raphael’s work consists of trying to understand the importance of the group: the interpretation of the parts in relation to the whole; the drawing out of the meanings of the groups and individual animals, because in art form and content tend towards the same expression. The groups of animals relate to social organisation and this social nature is essential to Max Raphael’s analysis. In these compositions of animals the paintings acquire a greater significance. In the caves that he examines (and in many others that he knew nothing about) certain animal species dominate; there’s antagonism and conflict in various compositions. These expressions are much more than hunting magic, probably pre-date it, and the same animals appear almost everywhere, though their frequency varies with the caves and in the main they are not the ones that served as a food source. There are the carnivorous animals that were not hunted, shown in the most meticulous detail with their associated behaviours (Raphael wouldn’t have known about most of these from the caves he knew about): “The character of each animal seems to be as limited as the subject matter, everywhere the reindeer live a bright cheerful idyll, just as the bison live a stormy drama, the horses display playful sensitivity and the mammoths (painted long after they were extinct in places) unshakeable dignity and gravity”[xi]. The force of these compositions is a combination of naturalism, magic and totemism. Some animals form pairs taking up certain positions in relation to others to the point of “crossing” one another, and even the same or different animals merging into one hybrid form; these are also different from the anthropomorphic sorcerer figures.  Horses take in different breeds of horses and there is a clear relationship of horses and hinds to mammoths. Later discoveries of earlier works also show the rhinoceroses living a “stormy drama”.  There appears to be a “transference” of one animal to another (lions and horses for example) and “processions” of animals. Larger groups appear as spectators, in what Raphael says seems to be a “chorus”. There are vulvas and sexually excited animals demonstrating the magic of fertility and the sexual overtones of some of the compositions. Sometimes the struggle of groups is separated as at Les Combarelles in France where on the left wall conflict dominates and on the right the scene is peaceful and the conflict seems to evolve into a united group. These are obviously not cast-iron interpretations from Raphael but they are based on a sound methodology that has been confirmed and validated by later finds.

“Palaeolithic man knew no magic without action, nor could he imagine action without magic; to him theory and practice were one”[xii]. And this unity maintained all its force to the very last expressions of this art over a period of twenty-five thousand years. In fact, with later evidence unknown to Raphael, we can clearly see that strong elements of this art were maintained and developed into barbarian society for over a further fifteen millennia as expressed in the stone, ceramics and metal workings of this universal barbarian culture(s). Raphael saw this himself in the early Egyptian pottery that he studied. Before and outside of civilisation, and in continuity with their ancestors, these barbarians were another “history-making peoples”. In the Upper Palaeolithic, magic was the “science” of its time: it included the totality of all existing knowledge and took into account the means of production through which society was to be transformed. This knowledge certainly included a detailed study of animal behaviour and nature, and confirmed mankind’s conscious superiority over the animal which embraced a developing mythology. Mankind in this period was very much social and according to Raphael the animals symbolised the clan [xiii]. The social unity of society was represented by the groups of animals but this art also represented social tensions, conflict and confrontation: it represented an arena of struggle.  There are also clear expressions of catharsis and reconciliation. Within his marxist analysis Raphael uses his structuralist strengths to counter-pose and differentiate sides of oppositions, even evoking the Wagnerian theme of Liebestod “Love Death” as one of many[xiv].

As with many other aspects of this society we can’t know very much for certain and this applies to the question of magic as the “science” of its time. But there are many aspects to this very detailed pictorial record that point us in this direction. Raphael looked at the paintings on the ceiling of the cave at Altamira – which had compositions just like the earlier paintings at Chauvet, as well as contemporary with the caves of Niaux, Castillo, Les Combarelles, etc. It was probably the shaman, the distinctive member of society, who was in most cases the artist. Behind the apparent disorder of the bison and hinds on Altamira’s ceiling, Raphael detects the magic of the eye and magic of the hand – action at a distance. These compositions, along with “signs”, will stand a great deal of examination The scene here is a battle, one where reconciliation takes place. Raphael uses ethnological evidence to explain the unequivocal positions of propitiation and atonement that some of the animals, the bison particularly, take up. There’s clearly a power at work here and this expression of atonement has been seen in much later “primitive” societies such as the Siberian Kamchatkans and Ostiaks, as well as the Nootka Indians of British Columbia. Raphael gives some time to the study of these societies in the work of James George Fraser[xv] . As elsewhere, Raphael warns that we have no way of knowing exactly the mind of this prehistoric period, in relation to magic as to anything else. But the pictorial record, the sheer force of the art, and the analysis given to it, as well as decent and relevant ethnological evidence, suggests we are on the right track.

A developing totemism

The aurochs and horse clans represented on a pendent wall at Chauvet. There’s ambivalence over the positions of the rhinoceroses with animals “crossing” one another. The horses have expressions of undoubted feminine tenderness while the aurochs show some masculine bulk. There are also indeterminate animals and signs and this particular painting shows additions over a period of some thousands of years.

The family group is expressed in this art again through animals and not by human figures. Sometimes the male figure is at the centre of the group and sometime the female figure. Woman as Being is expressed in the female deer and horses; clans with their femininity and “combined wisdom and a warlike spirit and from which derive the Amazon, Hagia Sophia and the witch”[xvi], later finding their way into barbarian art and Greek mythology. Raphael rejects a simple form of totemism: “But whatever the social organisation may have been in each case, however tenaciously each group clung to its own as best, all these groups express and embody the consciousness of their unity in the shape of an animal. This is the fundamental expression of totemism”. Just as Jews and Muslims were forbidden to make images of their God so too did the peoples of the Upper Palaeolithic adopt a similar approach with the animal figures representing humans – taboo plays a part here and a wider part in general. Not only are human forms rarely expressed but there even seems to be a taboo on full-face representations of animals – they are mostly asymmetrical and this is also related to motion. This totemism did not remain static but developed into a “realism that transcended nature itself”. One of its developments is into monumentalism – the mammoth, you might say, is the elephant in the cave. Only the mammoth follows a general pattern and is a source of stability, reconciliation and power. The mammoth clan, if such a thing existed, must have been greatly respected. In Chauvet alone there are some 60 plus depictions of mammoths; their appearance is similar to everywhere else and this includes here the “embracing” of other animals. Magic was the means of art and it drove the synthesis between naturalism and monumentalism as expressed by the symbolism of the mammoth. The decorated ceilings of Altamira and Lascaux are works of monumental proportions. The same is true of the cave walls of Chauvet where along one panel (there are several different panels) there’s a “procession” involving felines, bison, various canids, rhinoceroses, ibex, horses and indeterminate animals in states from a powerful calm to frenzy, following each other in a staggering “occasion of state” overlooked by a half-bison, half-woman sorceress painted onto a large pendent rock. The “procession” is broken by a large inverted natural “V” shaped undulating cleft in the wall from which emerges a mammoth, a horse, a rhinoceros and a bison. Unlike the animals and “signs” in the procession, which are all painted red, these animals are all in black. Beneath these figures there is a shallow blood-red pool formed through the drips permeating the walls and stripping out the ochre. There’s no reason to think that the morphology of the cave has changed much in 33,000 years so this is probably an original feature. The sexual tension is apparent and the whole composition, like others in the cave, can only be described as theatrical.   Magic was socialised and society became a magic force. This is beyond the punctual expressions of hunting magic and has a more profound basis than assistance to the kill, i.e. it’s more than predators and prey. It was in the social observation of nature, of cause and effect of animal behaviour, in its conscious assimilation, that society advanced: “At Les Combarelles the scenes that have social significance are so solemn and include so many participants that they impress one as state occasions. At the same time, both morally and politically, Palaeolithic ideology reaches universal human dimensions, and some of the scenes have the grandeur of Aeschylian tragedies”[xvii]. From the observation of nature magic endowed this art with life without detracting from the unity of the image. And despite the many different depictions of animals, bison, hind, horse, lions, mammoth, bear, stags, aurochs and so on, none are identical, they are all different.

Totemism not only developed into monumentalism with the ubiquitous depictions of the mammoth and “state occasions”;  it also expressed itself in abstract symbolism where truncated versions of the concave and convex curves of the animal’s bodies and legs were reduced to “signs” and  “motifs”. Later research has further shown that the curves and features on some of the animals were painted or incised along or on natural fissures and features of the cave wall. Along with the hand prints pressed against the wall this indicates that the wall itself had a meaning as a way into the spiritual world. Some of the paintings at Chauvet (and elsewhere) show great use of the natural features of the cave, with animals appearing to emerge from the wall itself. There are also offerings, bone, antler, quartz, roots, etc., that have been pushed into cracks in the wall, all of which tends to reinforce its importance for access to the “other world” (for more on this see The Mind in the Cave, by David Lewis-Williams, Thames and Hudson, 2002. This was research that Raphael would have been unaware of). And it’s important to remember here - and Raphael was well aware of this - that the caves were not dwelling places, certainly not the areas where the paintings were done: they were often not on flat, accessible walls, these being deliberately ignored. These were places of festivity and spirituality where tensions and conflict could be confronted. The wealth of the art on display at Chauvet, and its age, tend to support many of the points made by Raphael: the duality and continuity of the human and animal world, the oppositions and antagonisms of the compositions, the anthropomorphic figures, the animals with human expressions; and in Chauvet, the spiritual link between the two worlds. It’s also necessary to mention here the importance of the choice of surface and the sophistication of the preparation, the range of materials and the techniques used. At Chauvet, where the different and autonomous morphology of the various cave walls are linked together by decoration of both representations and “signs”, there appears to have been few “visitors”, though there are signs of adolescents having been taken there. Bears inhabited the cave before and after humans: this is evidenced by the paintings over and under their scratch marks, with at least one claw mark incorporated into a painting.

Being, “signs” and motion


The “Hall of Bulls”, early Magdalenian at Lascaux in France. There’s a number of aurochs and deer coming from the opposite direction in some sort of confrontation and/or meeting-up. The panel is 9 metres long and scaffolding would have to have been used. Some of the depictions are very large and were possibly painted by a number of people. There are a few signs around the animals and black and red dots and dashes.

Raphael talks a lot about the “force” and “motion” of these paintings, the “Being” “that has divested itself of all mere relationships and yet includes the individual not as an accident but as an essence”. This Being doesn’t transcend the world but expresses its constancy.  The present sense of danger in the Upper Palaeolithic world could only accentuate this sense of Being, bringing forth the “self-assertion, self-revelation and self-creation of its substance... in general the Upper Palaeolithic artists achieve the same objectivity, the same freedom from purely subjective elements and even from human consciousness... The artist’s ability lies in its reproduction of the social world in materials that speak to our senses”[xviii]. Here is part of its eternal charm and timeless quality[xix]. And if the artist can rise above his time, and the evidence here is that he clearly can, and produce such works, “his will nevertheless remains the social slave of the compulsions of his time”. The anthropomorphic figures, which are everywhere, can express fertility but are more concerned with the motion of magic; there are those that appear at the beginning of a composition, there are those right in the centre and those that are actors in the whole. Movement and motion was fundamental to this society from the appearance, agglomeration and dispersion of the herds. It must have been conceived in a way we can’t imagine. These shaman-type figures are also found alone in the recesses and the deepest and most difficult places to in the cave. The spiritual journey and communication via the animal and into the cave wall are evident here. The historical record of the different clans, which include the shamans, sorceresses and the like, could include the specific artist. Raphael says that it looks like the sorcerers posed the question: ‘Who are you?’ famously answered by Odysseus, ‘Neither man nor animal: No one’. “The main task of a history of art is to show that these forms, forms and not contents! – must necessarily arise from definite economic, social, political, moral, religious, etc., roots, that these forms express them, manifest them; vice-versa, that they react on these roots and play a part in their transformation”[xx]. Given our knowledge of this period and its art we can only do this in a fragmented way, but we can attempt it. 

For the purveyors of the idea of unbroken progress, there’s a gulf between the primitive “signs” and later animal representations that further develop into the “proper” art of civilisation. For them it is inconceivable that Upper Palaeolithic artists could express a synthesis of geometric figures and animal representations, a unity in diversity.  Some “signs” came from truncated versions of animal figures, possibly expressions of magic, and others have been universally demonstrated to come from various forms of altered states of consciousness – in this respect see The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams already mentioned above. The dashes and dots, usually at the beginning of the artistic presentations of the cave, are a short-hand for something. They appear on their own, usually equidistant, sometimes over long distances, they make up animal figures entirely, link them or are superimposed over them. Sometimes they are contrasted to continuous lines. What they mean is by no means sure but hunter-gatherer existence is separated by motion through space that must have been particularly immediate and relevant to them in following the herds and in their closeness to nature. These signs are possibly representative of a motion of a distinct and energising kind. Just looking at one bison on the Altamira ceiling shows connections between continuous lines and discontinuous dashes that seem to point to a sense of movement and this is expressed many times elsewhere. The contradiction between Being and motion could possibly be addressed by the artist through a series of patterns, of dots and dashes. If we don’t know what they are saying it is still quite possible that, overall, these signs represent some sort of written language. Some of these signs and compositions make their way into general barbarian art prior to and during the Neolithic. Raphael himself points to some similarities with these signs and the some of the letters of the Latin alphabet.

From one side of the world to the other around forty thousand years ago, hand-prints were used as an artistic expression and in Chauvet and elsewhere they make up entire expressions.  Raphael doesn’t underestimate the importance of the hand, seeing it representing superiority over the animal kingdom, driving forwards man’s spiritual, physical and productive forces. There’s symbolic meaning to the hand and the fingers in some major religions: “In Upper Palaeolithic art the hand was laid on the animal both magically and artistically”, underlining a further stage in human evolution. But while humanity was “... no longer dominated by animals (it was) still subjected to its own spiritual means of domination over the animal world”. Like the great majority of animals depicted, the hand is asymmetrical and this is emphasised when it is spread. In the Upper Palaeolithic the animal was everything and it was such through the intermediary of the human hand.

Contradictions, oppositions, confrontation as the way forward

Part of a mammoth procession in a typical monumental pose in the Rouffiignac cave in the Dordogne from the Magdalenian period in France. The wider drawing shows Capricorn hinds and other animals accompanying the mammoths. There’s both gravity and lightness in the depiction. In the 8 km of underground caves there are 150 mammoths depicted, 70% of the total animals shown.

The counter-posing of different structures and compositions, what could be argued as its dialectical nature, is a major feature of prehistoric cave art and it is expressed in almost every cave that has been surveyed. As elsewhere the ceiling of Altamira shows both the stillness and concrete nature of the animal and the infinite possibilities of movement. The effect of movement/stillness here, as at Font-de-Gaume, Les Combarelles, Lascaux and Chauvet is palpable. The magic also changes the movement of sexual passion into the stillness of exhaustion. Struggle and death is represented in the animal and it’s the genius of the artist that brings out the universal meaning in a transcendence of reality.  These clear oppositions expressing the inner and outer worlds, and the tensions behind them allowed “... the artist to rise above the historically given and limited magic totemism into the sphere of timeless aesthetic object and this translation is in turn a condition for the formal development of the theme into an artistic whole”. The oppositions are between nomadic and sedentary, masculine bulk and feminine tenderness, totemism and magic, magic and political power, agglomeration and dispersion, spirituality and physical force, divergence and convergence, unity and diversity. These works of art are attempts to overcome and synthesise these tensions. The paintings of the herds and prides at Altamira and Chauvet are compositions of a whole range of elements: processions, a “chorus”, crowds and dispersion, parallel steps with the focal point at Altamira being the bison/shaman figure confronted by a very large hind with the crucial distances between the animals, along with the definitely placed signs and the expression of a definite concrete content.

Upper Palaeolithic art is as distant as it is as close and, for the most part, we are unable to read and interpret its expressions. We’ve seen the “scientists” who brand this art “... with the mask of primitiveness, the laziest excuse of humanistic science in the period of monopoly capitalism, intended to conceal the lack of ideas and their deterioration in a whole historical period”. Max Raphael puts forwards the thesis of homogeneous compositional art for a period of tens of thousands of years and raises the question of the artistic unity of other periods (and the relationship to their economic substructures); the theme of Greek art based on Euclidian frames of reference; the art of the Renaissance derived from the human anatomical structure. All of this underlying a general thesis of the human spirit and progress that humanity has made in understanding itself. The art forms, particularly the later expressions of Christianity, centred on the human or the god-like figure whereas these paintings clearly centre on animals, animals as humans, as clans, opponents, allies; and animals who override contradictions as magic: “ (This) enables us to show why a definite world of forms must necessarily correspond to definite material and religious bases. Thus the history of art can leave the Linnaean stage of cataloguing unessential characteristics and become a serious science”. I haven’t done a detailed study of them, such a study would be interesting, but even a superficial look at the many cave paintings and engravings discovered since his book show the strength of Raphael’s hypotheses with a remarkable validation.  It’s a validation of the marxist method.


Rhinoceros in an agitated state at Chauvet, They appear to be chased by a group of horses and other animals that are out of picture appearing on the right. Watching this from a rock opposite is what appears to be a contemplating baboon – the only primate shown in any cave art of this period. Unfortunately, while it looks definite, it is an optical illusion and the animal is in fact another rhinoceros. The whole episode is another “stormy drama”.

There’s one question where we would take issue with Raphael’s analysis and that is where, at the end of his book, he suggests, quite against his overall arguments, that this society was a class society based on oppression: “On the other hand Palaeolithic art is close enough to us to make us feel the unity of mankind and reduce the seeming differences between history and prehistory. The difference is justified by the fact that so-called prehistory has no written tradition, no historical documents we are able to read. Then, as today, man was oppressed by man; then, as today, art represented the wishes and interests of the ruling classes which possessed the spiritual and material tools and weapons.”

Where would exploitation come from in this society, where is its economic base and who is the ruling class? There is no class society and no basis for exploitation but Raphael points to the control of tools and weapons. Archaeological evidence, plenty of it, shows us that throughout the whole lithic period – over two million years – there was an abundance and development of tools, i.e., the means of production. From the early time of the Acheulean “axe”, vast deposits of these tools have been found, often unused. The Acheulean axe itself became one of the first works of art and symbolism. In the Upper Palaeolithic, again there’s evidence of an abundance of tools and their refinement shown in whole tool “industries” where, incidentally, Sapiens and Neanderthal worked side by side for a while. There is no economic basis for exploitation and whatever form of alienation these peoples felt – and this is another question we can’t answer here – it wasn’t from the means of production.

And who is the ruling class? Among the Australian aborigines thousands of years ago, different ‘classes’ were set up in order to avoid inter-marriage. But this is no different from the later gentes (or the earlier clans – if they existed) where inter-marriage became taboo and descent firmly fixed in the female line. If there was oppression of “man by man” where could it have come from? It can only be from the shaman/sorcerers, the warriors or the Chiefs/Judges. The paintings show clear distinctions and differentiations in this society but no expression of exploitation or oppression – on the contrary Raphael constantly emphasises the unity of these works above all other. And most of them were probably painted by the shaman/sorcerers. In fact when we move from the Upper Palaeolithic into the Neolithic farming/metal-working barbarian society prior to civilisation (and class society), which also brought the art of its ancestors into its own, we  find shaman/sorcerers, warriors, chiefs/judges but still no class society – no exploitation, no ruling class, no state. In fact what we do find are clear expressions of communistic practices: everyone has a voice, the balanced role of the sexes, no private property, etc. Class society developed along with civilisation, the state and private property and then art came to be completely at the service of the ruling class. The communistic tendencies of barbarian society were crushed but not extinguished by class society and, just like the Upper Palaeolithic, this society had its “chains”, its limits and had to fall. The abiding feature of these societies compared with the proletariat today is the sense of struggle, of a “history-making” people, but no class society nor exploitation.

We must leave on a positive note for Raphael’s work on this amazing art: the dynamic of struggle; differentiation within a unity; the dialectical  asymmetrical nature of this art in expressing myth, magic and symbolism. Marx posed an apparent conundrum in ascribing an eternal charm to the art of a long dead society. I think that in his analyses of prehistoric art Raphael has gone some way towards bridging the question. Today, despite its distance, we feel a unity with this art, a unity which in its timeless quality to some extent breaks down the difference between prehistory and history This earlier period was no idyll but one with the “comfortable chains” of primitive communism (Marx) and a period of struggle for survival shown by the written records of these paintings. And we should remember that in the main this society succeeded because it lasted for some twenty-five thousand years: “The study of Palaeolithic art should serve as a reminder to us that it is high time to put an end to the prehistory of mankind and to begin a new era in which the human race will consciously make its history. ‘What’s past is prologue’[xxi]

Boxer. 11.3.16


[i]  Prehistoric Art in Europe, Professor N. K. Sandars. Yale University Press, 1985.

[ii] Prehistoric Cave Paintings, Max Raphael, Pantheon Books, 1945. The “golden section” referred to here is a post-Euclidian geometric relationship that appears in many forms of art and mathematics. There is some discussion about this.

[iii] This kind of linear, mechanical view implied in the idea of a crude primitivism moving towards a refined, superior product is a view that can be used to support the idea of the supremacy of bourgeois society. Primitive here is used as a term of denigration and abuse which it doesn’t have to be.

[iv] Michel Lorblanchet, Finger markings in Peche-Merle and their place in prehistoric art. 1992.

[v] Prehistoric Cave Paintings. Pantheon Books, 1945.

[vi]One of the greatest proponents of sarcasm and abuse has been the British archaeologist Paul Bahn, described on his Wikipedia page as an “active consultant expert” for the BBC. See Membrane and Numb Brain. A Close Look at a Recent Claim for Shamanism in Palaeolithic Art” P. G. Bahn, 1997 and the response to his reactionary views: Les chamanes de la prehistoire. Text integral, polemique et reponses, Jean Clottes et David Lewis-Williams, 1998.

[vii]Raphael makes the central role of woman clear in all the activities around spiritual production. Subsequent archaeological finds have pointed to the likely role of women as shamans, sorcerers and magicians in prehistoric society.

[viii] The Demands of Art, Max Raphael. Princeton University Press, 1968.

[ix] Prehistoric Cave Paintings


[xi] Prehistoric Cave Paintings.

[xii] Idem.

[xiii] Raphael is not entirely clear about the “clan” but I think that we can surmise a relationship between the Palaeolithic clan, if it existed, and its relations of parts to the whole, to the development of the barbarian gentes as outlined by Lewis-Henry Morgan in Ancient Society... and Engels in Origin of the Family.

[xiv] I think that David Lewis-Williams (see below) was correct in defining Raphael as a “structuralist”, in part anyway. Structuralism began and is epitomised in the works of Giambattista Vico. See

[xv] The Golden Bough, a study in magic and religion, 1890, James George Frazer, which, among other things, documents the similarities in magic and belief systems from ethnological evidence around the world.

[xvi] Prehistoric Cave Paintings

[xvii] Idem.


[xix] We know that this particular expression of art lasted for twenty-five thousand years and continued in content some millennia after. It must be very likely that these expressions were in line with earlier developments in Africa.  The developing form and its content were one and the same for a long period.

[xx] Prehistoric Cave Paintings. All quotes now from this work.

[xxi] Idem.