sábado, 10 de febrero de 2018

The Prehistoric origin of cinema

Paleolithic Art in Motion Pictures

Archaeologists reckon this moving toy, with an image of a running fawn, may be 14,000 years old. If it is the case, it is the most ancient moving image to date. This engraved disk with an image of a running fawn or hind may be the oldest image meant to actually represent movement in a a sequence of images, through the optical illusion on which cinematic images are based.


Marc Azéma and Florent Rivère interpreted this disc found in Dordogne in 1868 as a thaumatrope—a spinning toy which combines two images to create an optical illusion. It is apparently not the only one of its kind found in prehistoric sites. They point out that the essentials of cinematic technology are to be found in the decomposition of movement and the technique for its recomposition through the optical illusion originating in retinal persistence. The thaumatrope was rediscovered in the 19th century, and is, together with the praxinoscope, one of the immediate precursors of cinematic technology.

There is quite a number of dimensions to take into account when defining the semiotic specificity of film, and of course there is no actual "film" in this prehistoric toy—nor in present-day "films" for that matter. But the cinematic nature of this image is a giant's step bridging the paintings of Lascaux and Altamira and the optical toys of the eighteenth or nineteenth century which are usually identified with the 'prehistory' of cinema.

Then there is also another dimension of the cinematic experience, one which is absent in the Paleolithic spinning disc—the projection of images through light. This is usually associated with early modern experiments such as the camera obscura and, later, the phantasmagoria. But there is a Paleolithic precedent for that as well—the play of shadows on the walls of the cave, around the fireplace, which may have contributed to inspire Paleolithic paintings in the first place.

As to the camera obscura, although it was popularized as a pictorial aid for artists in the Renaissance, it is sometimes created accidentally, as has been the case for instance in a couple of rooms of my own, one while I was a teenager, the other at present. The same may have been the case in countless rooms and huts and caves... but to my knowledge it did not inspire a technology of representation or an art form before the Renaissance.

Playing with shadows, on the other hand, is immediately intuitive as a form of children's play, and shadow plays or theatralized silhouettes are present in many cultures today—sometimes the shadows become physical moving silhouettes. It is just possible that there is an interesting allusion to it in Plato's narrative of the Myth of the cavern, combined perhaps with a reference to puppet plays. It is the shadows on the wall that made Plato glimpse the nature of reality as a representation and collective fiction. It is to that shadow play that we can trace back the beginning of communal symbol-making, of fictional narrative, of art, of entertainment —and also of the philosophy that reveals the communal fictionality of our cultural environment.

As to the moving paleolithic spinning disc, it is no doubt a toy —which places toys at the origin of art as well— but it is also a giant's step forward for mankind in the technology of representational art, and on the pathway of creativity.

Some references:

Azéma, Marc. La Préhistoire du cinéma: Origines paléolithiques de la narration graphique et du cinématographe. Book  + DVD. Editions Errance, 2011.

Rivère, Florent. "La préhistoire du cinéma." Florent Rivière 10 Nov. 2011.



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