Ice Age Art, Autism, and Vision: How We See/how We Draw

By Kellman, Julia | Studies in Art Education, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Ice Age Art, Autism, and Vision: How We See/how We Draw


Kellman, Julia, Studies in Art Education


This paper explores the nature of images created by Paleolithic artists and precocious autistic artists in regard to drawing techniques and image function. A possible explanation for commonalities between these images is proposed based on the research of David Mart (1982). Chauvet Cave will be used to begin the discussion of Ice Age art (Chauvet, Deschamps & Hillaire, 1996). Then, 7-year-old Jan,ie serves as exemplar of a precocious autistic child artist (Kellman, 1996). Finally. the role of the early vision process and the construction of meaning in the art of these two types of artists will be compared. The importance of this undertaking lies in the increased understanding of the similarities of visual images founded on observed reality in artmaking of both autistic and non-autistic artists. At the same time, this inquiry provides a possible explanation for the source of these vivid images in the human vision system itself

A photo in the Washington Post of January 8, 1996 (Thomas, 1996) shows four pony-like horse heads with bristly black manes drawn one above the other on a surface of uneven yellow stone. Even in their truncated state they appear vigorous, with tiny, slightly-tensed muzzles and small, close-set ears. The horses, so vivid and life-like, must have been drawn by an artist with an excellent visual memory, for the images catch the spirit of the stocky animals, even though they are located far underground, well away from any observable creatures who might have served as models. The spontaneity of these images draws us into the early artist's world. For a moment we see with his/her eyes, taking part in a time distant from our own, a place populated with animals we cannot recognize and lifestyles we can barely imagine.

Since it was first recognized at the beginning of the 20th-century, European Ice Age art has astonished observers with its use of drawn line, solid descriptions of form in space, foreshortening, directionality, and expressiveness. This is not to imply early art elsewhere is not masterful, but to indicate that early European parietal art displays outstanding, observational drawing skill. Questions about this art's genesis have included: How did these artists create such visually-based, three-dimensionally focused drawings-without apparent prior artmaking experience so early in the history of modern humans in Europe? What might these drawings indicate about the artist and his/her culture? What might such skills tell us about the human capacity for image making? And why were these images created?

Similar considerations have been raised regarding the art of young autistic artists, since they too employ foreshortening, have three-dimensional characteristics, and a vivid sense of motion in their often structurally-focused images (Howe, 1989). Additional queries have included: How is it possible for extremely young children experiencing retardation to create such vigorous, foreshortened, perspectively-grounded art without training? What motivates these children to make such art in the first place? What might such skills indicate about visually-based art skills elsewhere?

This paper explores the nature of images created by Paleolithic artists and precocious autistic artists in regard to drawing techniques and image function. A possible explanation for commonalities between these images is proposed based on the research of David Marr (1982). Chauvet Cave begins the discussion of Ice Age art (Chauvet, Deschamps, & Hillaire, 1996); and 9-year-old Jamie serves as an exemplar of a precocious autistic child artist (Kellman, 1996). Finally, the role of the early vision process and the construction of meaning in the art of these two types of artists is compared. The importance of this investigation lies in the increased understanding of the commonalities of visual images in artmaking by both non-autistic and autistic artists. At the same time, this investigation provides a possible explanation for the source of these vivid images in the human vision process itself. …

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