Over the summer I attended the short course, “Human Creativity Through Space & Time”, at Christie’s, London. The title intrigued me because despite being a specialized Art Auction House, Gallery and Museum, they replaced the word ‘Art’ with ‘Creativity’. Art is such a frustratingly narrow term, especially in our modern context. In our understanding, Art represents paintings on a wall in a designated space, or perhaps even extending to physical sculpture or installation. Creativity, on the other hand, encompasses any and everything that we see around us, be it natural or man-made. There is creativity in nature, in chaos, in human biology, in the dance form, in architecture, in the written script, in fashion choices, in customs and rituals, in our very human attempts to immortalise ourselves and even, in death. The most opulent and creative aspect of the lives of Ancient Egyptians was their tomb!
Initially, I was skeptical about how much we could possible cover on such a vast topic in such a short span…but as we began unraveling the threads, I realized how very natural and self-explanatory it all was! Human creative history essentially tends to repeat itself (as all history perhaps), and using Phaidon’s ‘30,000 Years of Art’ as our guide, we were able to make the necessary thematic links to understand and even predict it. At the end of the course when we sat for celebratory drinks with our tutors, we all discussed our one over-arching takeaway. I reflected upon how amazing it was that both the earliest human cave-painters and the most celebrated Contemporary painters shared the tendency of mark making. The Argentinian Cuevas de las Manos (Cave of Hands) contains imprints of stenciled human hand shapes dating back almost 13,000 years. Though we can’t be sure of their motive, it’s simple to assume they wanted to leave behind a part of themselves immortalized on the cave wall. Similarly, renowned Abstract Expressionist, Jackson Pollock’s signature style consisted of just dripping and whipping paint over the canvas. Pollock literally put himself on to a painting, with his strokes mirroring a dance, and described the result as, “a whirlwind of energy and motion made visible”.
Left to Right: Jackson Pollock (1940's AD); Cuevas de las Manos (7300 BC).
These endeavors to mark ones presence in history have been made by people of all cultures throughout the world. Be it the more obvious attempts of Kings of Empires with their colossal reliefs, (Ashurbanipal of Assyria, Darius of Persia); or the subtle aides-mémoires of artists like Rembrandt in his work, Self- Portrait with Two Circles. The fundamental link between them all was the need to use creativity as a means of documentation, reaction, expression, and absolution. These links were better highlighted by the thematic rather than linear approach we took. Phaidon’s book placed an Indian fresco from c. 500 AD on the page directly next to a Mexican portrait head from the same period! Though these cultures were geographically isolated, they were united in their basic human expressions, which made them use art in similar manners with the same intended outcome.
Left to Right: Relief of Ashurbanipal of Assyria's Lion Hunt (6th century BC); Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Two Circles (16th century AD).
In some cases, the architecture too was eerily similar between cultures that weren’t just separated by space but even by time. Göbekli Tepe in Turkey is a site that mirrors the look of Stonehenge in England, but is about 6,000 years older to it. Is this the miraculous result of knowledge passed down through the ages? Or is it a mere coincidence? Why was human creativity, despite having arisen from subjective fertile imaginations, overlapping?
Top to Bottom: Göbekli Tepe, Turkey (c. 7000 BC); Stonehenge, England (c. 2000 BC).
All the human concepts of society, religion, power, war or love, are more or less akin. For example, the divine ‘halo’ played a major role in religious art and was used with the same intention in all cultures, be it for the Buddhist Gautam Buddha in Ancient India, or for the Christian Mother Mary in Renaissance Italy. These common human tendencies may be explained by simple social biology or evolutionary psychology, but it is important to be aware of them. It is important to know that art, creativity, design and ideation unite us rather than divide. Our cultures, societies and surroundings may define what we create, but how we create it tends to be rooted in our very being.
Left to Right: Seated Buddha, Gandhara, (3rd century AD); Annunication, Fra Angelico, Italy (15th century AD).
Modern art is hard to understand because we make the mistake of over-analyzing and complicating it. The best moment in my entire course was when we sat in Mark Rothko’s Seagram Murals room at the Tate Modern, and were asked to merely ‘feel’ the works. Creative works are like individual personalities; they can be loud or soft, sad or happy, lonely or busy. Art isn’t an intellectual pursuit as much as an intuitive one! Feeling is the key to understanding the very human emotions the artist intends to trigger. My sole most important learning was that everyone, in some way or another, is an artist. We are all born to connect, create and convey. It is, perhaps, our very foremost primal instinct.
Mark Rothko (c. 1940's AD).