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Kazimierz Rykowski

In search of roots of esthetic values of forest or dilettante's notes about tree and forest in pre-historic art

Paper presents the analysis of perception and imaging of nature by first humans. On drawings, engravings and paintings left in caves by our artist-ancestors wecan only see animals. The paper ask some questions: where are the plants and why they do not appear in this world perception of first humans? Why in anycenters known from pre-historic art (Lascaux, Altamira, Font-de-Gaume, Les Combarelles, La Pena de Candamo, Les Eyzies, Niaux, and others) we do not find plants, not one tree? What defined the nature perception and its imaging in the artistic activity in those times? When the first humans remarked mindfully and fixed in form of drawings their emotional, spiritual and artistic relations with trees and forest?
It is desirable to know the origin and history of non-material, spiritual, and esthetic values of trees and forests. The foresters today became guards in protecting the forest from society expectations. There is a need to aid foresters in their understandings of contemporary forestry, which is much more than wood production, it is a natural heritage of civilization and living archetype of beauty. These values are rarely conceived when talking about public values of forest.
The paper covers pre-beginnings of artistic activity – paleolithic and neolithic period. Lack of plants/trees in the pre-historic art is characteristic for all paleolithic era and in all range of presence and activity of man. Magnificent oryniac-magdalene fine-arts (30–8 thousand years BC), which were absolutely outstanding in the imaging of animals, did not leave any marks of landscape,
plants, trees, or primeval forests.
Author presents animalistic cave’s drawings and pictures, which surprise by their graphic skill and anatomical knowledge of animals. There were bison, wild aurochs, red dears, horses, ibexes – animals,that one has to fight against, that one had to conquer. With spectacular accuracy the cave-era man creates first archetypes of strength and grace, massiveness and charm. What was the purpose of this need to portray nature, did it originate in magic, fun or decoration? The hunter
artists of those times were brilliant observers of local fauna, they blind however, when it came to flora. Subject literature suggests that this is an outcome of belief in symbol creation and a ritual which helps to overcome fear of living animals. It is a sign of religious and ritual life and as such it is the most prominent ingredient of pre-historic art. This fact also helps to explain the rather limited and very simplified depictions of man, as well as lack of plants, which were not involved in any magical practices then.
The analysis of art created by first Hominidae is accompanied by analysis of change in climate conditions and corresponding change in dominant plant species. The end of Ice Age and beginnings of Holocene (about 10 000 B.C.) marks the end of paleolithic and flourish of the new civilization. People leave their caves and settle in open terrain, where they can practice agriculture. Primeval forests
start to shrink, as they are burned and cleaned for farming and lice stock breeding. This revolution of neolithic period brought a significant change to how people perceived natural environment, including plants and trees. It seems that first cave drawings picturing trees/shrubs identified as “spruce” where found in Siberia, in Lena valley, and are dated back to paleolithic age. These drawings are very simple, artistically poor, “naive” pictograms in the form of lines (branches) spreading upwards or downwards, away from perpendicular axis (stem). People are drawn with similar schematic simple approach, with pair of lines for arms and legs. There is however a difference in depictions of animals – the deers, moose, doe, bucks, horses – are drawn expressively with artistically rich forms of expression.
The archetype of a tree in form of a “spruce” shape, has been present ever since it first appeared, remaining unchanged through the ages. An identical sign of a “tree” can be found in neolithic funnel goblets, ceramics made by Łużycka culture, or face-urns of the north-eastern culture. It is quite amazing, that these cultures, being separated by thousands of kilometers and ages of time, shared, and still share today this very same symbol of a “tree”, reduced to a simple sign/hieroglyph. The same sigh is being used by an avant-garde artist early in XX century, P. Klee, by a 3 year old child having it’s first drawing lessons, as it was painted 10-15 thousands of years ago by the creator of Lena drawings, as well as pottery makers in Eastern Europe, Korea, Cyprus. Simplification and replication of the form gave birth to an ornament. Neolithic culture uses many symbols describing symmetry, circles, straight lines and broken lines, repetitive motives, meaning rhythm. Realism, that was so obvious for Magdalenian art, disappears leaving space for more synthesized signs, simplified symbols.
Neolithic ornament is based on natural patterns, often trees, and it remains true for newer, purely geometrical ornaments. Neolithic culture was the beginning of the process of sacralization of the tree. It could be connected to special importance of trees in providing shelter, food, and symbols of endurance. The tree, a natural, self-regenerating, multi-usable creation of nature, many times largerand long lasting than a man, enduring all kinds of conditions, focuses attention, maybe arouses admiration for the form, force and harmony with surrounding world. For the things a man never had.
It becomes a magical object and takes place of the animal in that role. Among ancient treasures of Eastern culture there are many mentions of a tree described as the „Holy Tree”, „Tree of trees”, „The World Tree”, „The Tree of Life”, „Paradise tree”, „The Axis of the World”, that are being prayed upon. Along with these religious and magical meanings, the graphical form also evolves, becoming a more complex ornament as it is known today, for instance in paper cutouts from Kurpie (leluja). The tree seems to have been the most powerful symbol, loaded with meanings and interpretations spreading across almost whole of cosmology. Tree sacralization took place in all developed cultures in Asia (India, Malesia).
It is most curious, how different were the ways of evolution for the graphical depictions of animals and trees/plants. The evolution of animal depictions fromorynia-magdalena art to neolithic age show progress from realism to simplified signs (drawing of a deer, horses head). The evolution of tree depictions is, as remarked by the author, exactly opposite: the tree depiction began its life as a very simple schematic of little meaning, and through ages it evolved through ages, with added branches, leaves and roots, up to the point of realistic depictions. It is interesting, that the tree has been once more reduced to a symbol by modern art and abstract artists in search of harmony of vision, who reduced the tree to more general forms of balance and harmony (P. Mondrian).

Interpreting the observed differences, and especially the late arrival of first “tree” drawings compared to animal depictions in first art creation of our ancestors, the author calls upon the hierarchy of needs: aesthetic values and the need for beauty is only perceived when ones most basic physiological needs (hunger, thirst, sleep), safety needs (stability of existence), acceptation needs (being part of a group) are satisfied. Is the Maslow pyramid well suited for explaining the needs of a neolithic man? Or is it right to explain the need for beauty and search for harmony by the act of seeing the tree and depicting it? Could it have only been done after a dangerous yet victorious hunt, after securing other needs, as the next step in development? Is this the gene responsible for our sentiment towards trees and forest?

The spectacular role of trees which led to their sacralization is evident in many cultures and nations: ancient Fenicia, Mesopotamia, India, China, Scandinavia. In many of those places, some magical-cult practices are still alive. In this sense, the tree and forest have their significant share in building up the archetypes of beauty, and an important role in satisfying purely aesthetic and spiritual needs.

Key words: forest, nature, aesthetic object, beauty, fine art