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Realisme de l'image feminine Paleolithique.

As a European Palaeolithic archaeologist, with explicitly feminist concerns that include the scrutiny of the ways in which knowledge (about the past) is and has been produced, the task to review these three books, as an ensemble, is both pertinent and excruciating. It is excruciating because the issues raised by the intersections of the three books demand a substantial consideration that cannot be contained within a review essay of this sort. The first two volumes - considerations of the depiction of females in European Palaeolithic art - are more obviously well-paired for a single review. The addition of the third volume, which is a critical intellectual history of how we have come to think the way we do about the origins of humans and of human culture, was an inspired editorial addition.

I will provide expected summaries of each volume, but suggest from the outset that the Duhard treatise on the manifest 'realism' (of a certain sample) of female depictions in (French) Palaeolithic art provides the fulcrum between, one the one hand, Delporte's more comprehensive and reasoned catalogue of a wider sample of Palaeolithic female depictions and, on the other hand, the Stoczkowski essay that has as one underlying thesis that it is the 'conditioned imagination' which is the source of scientific conceptions.

Delporte's volume is a second and 'augmented' edition of a 1979 compendium of the same title. For nearly two decades, most of us conversant with Palaeolithic art in the Anglophone world have wished for an English translation of this still-essential book. The basic information in this volume on the images, the sites, the issues of chronology, along with important historical information on interpretation and discovery could have informed dozens of publications on the female figurines and depictions that are the poorer for the authors' failures to consult Delporte. While I do not uncritically endorse Delporte's approach or interpretative positions, nonetheless, no one should consider themselves informed on the scope of the subject without consulting this work.

Delporte, it seems, was inspired to produce a second edition in part by the several dozen new finds and by wanting to consider (or even, to his credit, re-consider) a variety of interpretative possibilities, but also in part by the positive reception to his 1990 volume - equally elegant and aesthetically pleasing in presentation and format - L'image des animaux dans l'art prehistorique (Delporte 1990). The two make a handsome pair of treatises that are willing to engage with epistemological issues, with some of the Anglo-American literature, with an emergently refined notion of the relation between technology and style, and with the interpretive challenges of dealing with such a diverse, temporally extensive and yet culturally loaded (to us) corpus of prehistoric imagery.

As with the first edition, the second is divided into two parts following an Introduction that includes concise overviews of the Palaeolithic and chronologies for Palaeolithic art. From the beginning Delporte insists on the not too well-known fact that the images of humans in Palaeolithic art are numerous and varied. The first major section of the book is the presentation of the repertoire of female depictions, including a few of the male ones, as well as some discussion of probable fakes. These are arranged into five geographic groups. While some of these groups have notable spatial integrity, not all can immediately be accepted as the 'objective, perfectly defined' analytical units 'lacking interpretive implications' upon which Delporte insists. Within this figure-by-figure catalogue - accompanied by notably fine black-and-white photos - Delporte considers each depiction in terms of techniques used (sculpture, engraved, etc.), the themes (pregnant, svelte, with clothing, etc.) and the chronological information (often the most problematic aspect).

Where relevant, Delporte brings in the 'new' observations on figurine form and treatment as elucidated by Duhard, whose treatise (see below) argues for the 'realism' of the French female depictions that he analysed. In general, Delporte accepts most of Duhard's observations, and he even includes a section in his historic overview of Style (pp. 237-40) that summarizes Duhard's recent work. Included here is a gentle critique: Duhard does not differentiate adequately between the sculpted and engraved depictions, and underestimates the (powerful, to Delporte) role of the raw material or the 'support' in structuring many of the attributes of the female depictions that Duhard assigns to anatomical, physiological or others of his realisms (see below). That is, to Duhard, many of the attributes (e.g., an arm folded across the breast of the figure) are a direct and deliberate choice on the part of the maker, in trying to achieve a realistic and functionally meaningful depiction, more than something that emerged out of dynamic dialogue between subject matter and the parameters and possibilities of the raw materials employed, as Delporte would often argue.

The second part of Delporte's volume again comprises three 'synthetic' chapters: on the geographic and chronological distributions; on varying techniques of manufacture and styles; and on signification and motivation for the imagery. Here Delporte is at his anthropological best, and also most frustrating. He is frequently thoughtful and interestingly prudent about the all-too-ready use in prehistoric art of ever-problematic terms, such as 'style'. As well, Delporte refuses that there will be a single unified motivation behind the making of female depictions, but his idea of models or scenarios for the Palaeolithic ones are firmly chronocultural (there is the Aurignacian one, the Gravettian one and the two variants of the Magdalenian one), and understandably derived from what he considers as formal variations in technique, style and 'theme'. What this highlights, however, is the problem that we are far from the requisite and explicit differentiation of the depictions as representation (or, as the outcomes of culturally-inspired representational acts or practices) and as historical artefacts (that can be located in time and space) (after Mack 1996). While the two are ineluctably intertwined, they all are too often still conflated.

Delporte gives one much to grapple with, from the detailed analyses of differing techniques of engraving to the final musings about the emergence of a Magdalenian world view that hinged on a 'female/ animal' cosmological duality - a world view that, in connecting females with Nature ('le Monde vivant') (p. 276), is, at some 15,000 years ago, a rather precocious appearance of what has been both shown to be a historical construction within the recent western past (see Merchant 1980) and a topic of debate within feminist and other intellectual circles (e.g. Keller 1985; Strathern 1980).

In contrast, Duhard's volume is more limited in scope: in the sample of female (and human) depictions under consideration, in theoretical sensibilities and thoughtfulness, in any consideration of archaeological context, and in entertaining multiple, plausible interpretive possibilities. While recognizing diversity in the forms of the depictions, Duhard argues that the figurative art of the Palaeolithic, based on his sample of some 200 depictions available to him as first-hand (not photographic) evidence in collections in France, respects live morphological diversity, and is thus 'perfectly realistic'. In the third major part of the book he identifies at least seven different realisms that he can recognize and document in the depictions: anatomical, physiological, sexual, kinaesthetic, biological, sociological and pathological realisms. This follows from an introductory chapter that reviews various physiological attributes (e.g. obesity) along with a summary of female physiological modifications over the life-span, and from a 120-page catalogue description, along with many line drawings (no photographs) of the selected images.

Much authority has been granted to Duhard's analysis because Duhard is a gynaecologist and thus 'knows perfectly the female body, from the anatomical and physiological point of view' (Delporte, in Preface to Duhard 1993, p. 9). While not denying that having been a practising gynaecologist involves an expertise and a kind of knowledge that has very relevant potential applications to these particular depictions of humans, there is no recognition in the enthusiasm for Duhard's vocation that western gynaecology is itself a historically derived field of inquiry, with its own cultural and perceptual constructions. An abundant literature exists that exposes the histories and constructed parameters of sex, sexuality, 'the body' and even of the skeleton (e.g. Laqueur 1990, among many!). A 20th-century French male gynaecologist-now-prehistorian does not bring to his study of these figurines some pure, objective trans-historical set of reference points for a 'true' reading of the female body.

More problematic even is that Duhard is often selective in those features that can be 'read' in some direct manner as realistic, when often, on the very same figurine, other features (e.g. lack of hands or feet or face, or of pubic hair) are patently not realistic. Thus, while much is made of the figurines as 'figurative art', that they are representations is often not fully recognized in the face of Duhard's conviction that this is a realistic art. Even Delporte, in his otherwise generous Preface, notes that Duhard has quite clearly minimized - I would say misunderstood - the symbolic dimensions of the representation of humans, especially when taken, as they must be, in the wider contexts of the full range of Palaeolithic depiction and representation. Any theoretical consideration of the very phenomena and processes by which images are produced, as social and cultural practices, is not apparent in Duhard's work.

Rather, he argues that there was representative choice as to which realistic features were selected for depiction and that the story being told by the depictions is to make it clear what the image is: it is a human, of specified sexual identity, from which we can thus 'read their physiological history' (p. 212). The choices made are the result of a function, not style, for the figurines: that of reproduction. We see in these figures a respect for 'unchanging biological laws', which is his (tautological) proof of the realism of the figures and of the careful conscientiousness with which the makers represented the female body in 'its clinical and phsyiological diversity' (p. 212). Duhard's treatise is a rich mine for those seeking some authentication of the biological destiny of/ for 'la femme', via an interpretation of archaeological materials that is buttressed by what is claimed to be an authoritative vocational expertise: the gynaecological. Many a trusting gynaecological patient might be dismayed to find themselves portrayed as part of an 'iconographic experimental base-line' (p. 212) against which Duhard can compare the female (and human) depictions of Palaeolithic image-makers.

Although there is considerable merit in the detailed attribute analysis that Duhard presents in his review of some 200 images - itself an important gallery of human images that are otherwise usually marginalized in the celebration of most Palaeolithic art as an animal art - this is not likely to be consulted except by specialists. And, in the wake of several decades of some very thoughtful and incisive scholarship on the complexities, dynamics and histories of understanding sex/gender in human societies, Duhard's other conclusions will be shockingly problematic and often not convincingly substantiated: that males were active and females peaceful and gentle, or that we are the direct descendants of these Palaeolithic makers and their societies who have an identical determination [to ours] to control their environment (p. 215).

And so, when one turns to Stoczkowski, who is explictly and intentionally sceptical about how our ideas about human origins and early human culture have come to be, a reader enmeshed in the previous volume on the depictions of humans in a prehistoric art might well be stopped short in their tracks. As Stoczkowski notes, 'if certain theories seduce us, it is [often] because they confirm our private naive convictions, legitimized by means of some appearances of a scientific nature' (p. 246). Although this quote is in reference to one of the 20 illustrative plates at the very end of the book that are mostly 19th- and early 20th-century drawings of prehistoric life, it is here - in his captions - that many of his more philosophical points are made in a most straightforward way, while making a short but significant contribution to the emergent concern with visualization in archaeology.

Stoczkowski's book, soon to appear in an English translation published by Cambridge University Press, will be well worth the wait by English readers. His first ('Prehistory and the Conditioned Imagination') and last ('The Two-sided Game') chapters are of significant interest to anyone who thinks that we can understand 'the past'. He does not merely make the case that there is this irrepressible inclination to explain new phenomena according to preexisting categories, nor that the emergent scientific attempts to account for human origins and the development of human culture could not themselves have unfolded within a conceptual vacuum, but that even the scientific imagination has been subject to certain pre-conditionings. On the one hand, he wants to identify what some of these pre-conditionings have been, and simultaneously, while tracing the ways in which our (western) imaginations have become conditioned, he inquires into the fact that the ways in which these have been so conditioned have themselves been so unquestioned that, he argues, this has obscured - more than illuminated - the knowledgeable thought of today. To doubt what we know is, he insists, productive. His intervening three chapters take up some of the specifics of these processes, including a consideration of anthropogenic and scientific notions of human origins, a long (50+ pages) overview of the various causal scenarios for human origins (the varying roles of tool use, brain size, division of labour, etc.), and a consideration of the mechanisms of evolution (e.g. darwinian, lamarckian).

In linking the arguments of Stoczkowski to the treatises on the female depictions of the Eurasian Upper Palaeolithic, only a few points can be made here. First, they immediately implicate the interpretive naivete that pervades much of prehistoric art research. One must now re-read the Delporte and especially the Duhard with the concept of 'the conditioned imagination' in hand, to scrutinize not merely these authors of the late 20th century, but the entire accumulated common sensibilities of a century's worth of interests in 'explaining' the Palaeolithic imagery. As Bynum has pointed out, 'the only past we can know is one shaped by the questions we ask; yet these questions are also shaped by the context we come from, and our context includes the past' (1995: 30). Where does the very assumption, that the category (of our construction) 'female depictions' has historical value or has meaning to us other than classificatory meaning, come from and on what basis can it be justified?

Second, as Henrietta Moore has explicated, in what surely makes a provocative companion piece to the Stoczkowski, our intellectual models (in this case, of the human past) 'depend for their impetus on imaginative possibilities they themselves cannot provide. What masquerades as the academic is very often the popular in disguise, and we would do well to remember that this sophisticated veiling mechanism is merely one of the more commonplace methods for covering over what we do not wish to have revealed' (1994: 149-50).


BYNUM, C. 1995. Why all the fuss about the body? A medievalist's perspective, Critical Inquiry 22: 1-33.

DELPORTE, H. 1990. L'image des animaux dans l'art prehistorique. Paris: Picard.

KELLER, E.F. 1985. Reflections on gender and science. New Haven (CT): Yale University Press.

LAQUEUR, T. 1990. Making sex: body and gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press.

MACK, R. 1996. Ordering the body and embodying order: the kouros in Archaic Greek society. Ph.D dissertation, Department of History of Art, University of California, Berkeley (CA).

MERCHANT, C. 1980. The death of nature: women, ecology and the scientific revolution. New York (NY): Harper & Row.

MOORE, H. 1994. The feminist anthropologist and the passion(s) of New Eve, in H. Moore, A passion for difference: 12850. Oxford: Polity Press.

STRATHERN, M. 1980. No nature, no culture: the Hagen case, in C. MacCormack & M. Strathern (ed.), Nature, culture, gender. 174-222. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Author:Conkey, Margaret W.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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