Salomon Reinach and the Religious Interpretation of Palaeolithic Art

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The manner in which Palaeolithic art was conceptualised changed profoundly between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This transition 'de l'art ludique a l'art magique" (Richard 1993: 60) has been explained in different ways. The parietal art that had been found in France in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century (La Mouthe, Pair-nonPair, Les Combarelles, Font-de-Gaume ...), which also revived interest in the forgotten case of Altamira (Delporte 1989), could not have the same meaning as portable art and needed a new theory, since its location, dimensions and techniques were quite different. This guided the debate towards magic-religious explanations, based on comparisons with contemporary hunter-gatherer groups (Ucko & gosenfeld 1967:118-23).

However, later studies have stressed that the new interpretation of the art of the 'Age of Reindeer' was the consequence of a significant change in the mentality of its researchers. At first hunter-gatherers were denied symbolic and intellectual complexity through a very simplistic version of evolution. This made it impossible to fit the art at Altamira and other caves within the concept of 'savage' society. In the second half of the nineteenth century several authors (e.g. Broca 1866: 75; Lubbock [1870] 1987: 192) deduced that it was impossible that any true religious thought could exist within primitive society. Quaternary hunters had no religion, as Gabriel de Mortillet maintained vehemently all his life:

'It happens that as soon as religious ideas appear, funerary practices are introduced. However, there is no evidence of funerary practices in the Quaternary. Quaternary man was, therefore, wholly devoid of any feeling of religiousness' (de Mortillet 1883: 476).

The anti-clericalism of de Mortillet must have fuelled his desire to prove that religion was not intrinsic to human nature (Reinach 1899c: 89-90; Bahn 1992: 341-5). In accordance with this, only portable art was thought to be ancient, and this was understood in terms of craftsmanship produced for decoration or as an amusement (Moro & Gonzalez Morales 2003; Gonzalez Morales & Moro 2004b). When the idea of progress became more flexible, prompted by the recognition of the symbolic-religious world of 'primitive peoples', the prehistoric age of the parietal depictions could be accepted (Richard 1993: 65-7; Gonzalez Morales & Moro 2002, 2004a; Moro 2006: 130-32).

More recently, the role played by 'art theory' in this debate has been emphasised. Thus, the enlargement in the concept of art, which took place in the late nineteenth century, allowed works of art that until then had been regarded as mere crafts or second-class creations (portable art) to be included within the category of fine art. In the same way, the anthropological approach applied to art theory studies contributed toward the acknowledgement that artistic activity could have a social function. This made it possible to conciliate the concepts of 'creativity' and 'functionality'. Therefore, an artistic object, independently of its aesthetic value, fulfilled a material or symbolic function in a given society. This new discourse was steadily accepted in the field of aesthetics and art theory (Barasch 2000: 224-8). Indeed, based on the study of primitive societies, it was thought that behind many 'savage' creations there existed a meaning connected with magic and religious symbology. This new paradigm decided that magic-religious motivations lay at the base of the origins of art. This caused a religious meaning to be given first to Palaeolithic portable art and then to the newly discovered parietal art (Palacio-Perez 2010).

In this paper my intention is to focus on the figure of Salomon Reinach, who was the true driving force and propagator of the religious interpretation of Palaeolithic graphic expression at the beginning of the twentieth century, an idea that has survived to the present through different approaches (e. …