The origins of Palaeolithic art, dating back about 35,000 years, are still little understood by prehistorians.
Across the European land mass, these early artistic representations first appear during the transition between the Neanderthals of the Middle Palaeolithic and the Homo sapiens sapiens of the Upper Palaeolithic period. This period of change - or upheaval - left us traces of two quite different ways of life. Change was particularly marked in the field of artistic expression: for the first time in human history, images in various forms (sculpture, engraving and painting) were used as a means of communication.
The Aurignacians, who occupied parts of Europe over 30,000 years ago, were the first to demonstrate such artistic capabilities. These people, who took a definite interest in the systematic production of adornment, such as bone or shell beads, also created surprisingly advanced sculptural forms. Of the few examples of sculpture that have survived, most are small representations of animals (mammoths, horses, lions, etc.) and, much less frequently, human beings.
It was not until the time of the Aurignacians' successors - the Gravettians of about 28,000 to 22,000 years ago - that the unique form of artistic representation known as the Palaeolithic Venus flourished in many regions of Europe. This occurred in conjunction with a certain standardization of tools, and the coincidence of technological and artistic expansion has been interpreted by some researchers as a first great unifying trend across Europe.
From their first discoveries of this form of art, prehistorians have felt compelled to explain its meaning and its origins. At first, during the nineteenth century, the notion of "art for art's sake" was promoted. This explained very little -- except, perhaps, the aesthetic ideals of the researchers themselves. Later, various hypotheses, which remain current today, were put forward, based on a somewhat simplistic interpretation of ethnological data and the history of religion. These theories attempted to interpret the supposedly primitive mind of Palaeolithic societies. Such hypotheses led to the portrayal of these statuettes as "mother goddesses." Further, because some of the figures appeared to be pregnant, they were thought to be animistic or shamanistic symbols of fertility and fecundity. More recently, a number of theorists have interpreted the figurines as an idealization of femininity in all its forms.
These theories may seem reasonable; however, we must remember that these attempts at interpretation were almost always formulated on the basis of poor samples, and in the light of data frequently taken out of context and emanating from relatively recent societies. How, then, could such hypotheses possibly lead to an accurate explanation of value systems developed by hunter-gatherers living approximately 25,000 years ago across a continent that was about to enter the last great ice age?
More recently, a number of researchers have chosen to interpret all modes of artistic representation of the Upper Palaeolithic period (including the Venus figures) as tools of communication between the scattered populations of Europe during the ice ages. This approach, though somewhat vague, does at least leave the door open to subsequent hypotheses -- hypotheses that will have to take into account new discoveries such as the unprecedented figurines excavated by Louis Alexandre Jullien.
This is the appropriate context for the examination and appraisal of the seven small Balzi Rossi sculptures that have not had the good grace to conform completely to generally accepted ideas.
Apart from The Mask which, for the moment, is unique in the iconography of this period, all the figurines portray nude females. With regard to form and proportion, the treatment of two of them - The Armless Lady and The Ochre Lady - is relatively conventional, like that of many other Venus figures. The Ochre Lady departs from the norm, having a perforation that indicates that, like four other statuettes (The Nun, The Bust, The Couple and The Two-Headed Lady) she might have been used as a pendant - a rare, if not unknown function for European Venus figures at this time.
Similar technical details underline the originality of this collection; however, what really sets the figurines apart from the classic Venus figure is the complexity of symbolism that was already apparent, as far back as 25,000 years ago.
For example, in the double images of The Nun, The Two-Headed Lady and The Couple (as well as Woman with pierced neck, sold earlier to the Peabody Museum), strange notions of opposition and duality are apparent. Still more fascinating, for so remote a period, is the woman-beast association in The Couple, which may evoke something of the power that women in these populations had as mediators between human beings and nature.
These are the sorts of vistas that the Balzi Rossi figurines open up to us. They not only enhance our perception of the iconographic variability of the European Upper Palaeolithic period, but also allow us to believe that, one day, we may come to understand, in all its richness, the true nature of these early beginnings.