My new book, Creation: Art Since the Beginning, tells the story of art from the earliest known (but not necessarily the first) human images dating from around 50,000 years ago, up until the present day.
The word 'story' of course brings to mind the popular The Story of Art, written by the art historian Ernst Gombrich over seventy years ago. But the story I tell is quite different. I certainly didn't set out to rewrite or 'update' Gombrich. Creation brings together many stories from art, literature and philosophy, and other ideas that preoccupied me as I was writing the book. All these stories combine to trace not a single line of development, as Gombrich did, but rather, I hope, convey the great diversity of human image-making.
In optimistic moments I like to think of Creation more as a David Attenborough-type of art historical text rather than a Gombrich-type book, in the sense that it offers glimpses through individual examples of the extraordinary range of ways in which humans have made and used images over the millennia – the 'biodiversity', if you like, of art. While writing Creation I often felt like a naturalist, with my notebook in hand, stalking images in museums and galleries around the world.
Just like animals in the wild, artworks don't always do what you expect them to do. Sometimes they take you by surprise, forcing you to question your expectations, and adding to your knowledge in the process.
Take for example Chinese painting. In the West it is not easy to see classical Chinese ink painting, and it remains little understood there. After a few days spent in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, I began to see how images made with ink on paper, using a set repertory of brushmarks, and usually repeating classical compositions, formed an entirely different idea of art, much more about the viewer's knowledge and memory of painting, and ability to appreciate fine subtleties of brushstroke and variations on classical themes.
Looking at paintings by Fan Kuan and Guo Xi, two of the greatest painters of the eleventh century, made me begin to see how heavy-handed and unsubtle European oil painting can be – all those bright, garish colours and thick marks! All that originality!
A similar revelation awaited over the sea, in Japan, where I was fortunate enough to spend three weeks. Since childhood I have loved Japanese art, and like many in the West, took it to be synonymous with the prints of Hokusai, Hiroshige, and others of the ukiyo-e school. And yet in Japan itself, ukiyo-e painting and printmaking are seen as rather a minor part of a national tradition of image-making that stretches back through centuries of beautifully painted screens, Buddhist sculpture, and to its origins in one of the longest traditions of clay vessel and figure creation in the Jōmon and Yayoi periods, stretching back to over 10,000 years ago.
I wrote the chapter on Japanese art, 'Spellbound', while staying in a traditional Samurai House outside of Kyoto, rather uncomfortably propped up on tatami mats. It was one of the many experiences where a different way of living seemed combined with a different way of looking at things.
In the West, we have become used to art as a symbol of personal freedom and democracy that we feel obliged endlessly to discuss. This is much less the case, at least traditionally so, in China and Japan, where the emphasis is rather on absorption and silent admiration – getting lost in the act of looking.
Not doing what you expect, you might say, is the entire history of art during the twentieth century. From around 1890, works of art seemed to become entirely about wrongfooting assumptions of what art can be. Nowadays we are so used to the shock of the new that it is more often the old that takes us by surprise.
During the writing of Creation, the 'shock of the old' was demonstrated dramatically by an extraordinary revelation in the field of prehistoric art: the dating of drawings of a pig-like animal on the walls of a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi to around 45,000 years ago. Previously, the earliest known images were carvings and rock drawings made in Europe around the same time (even slightly later).
What this means is that humans discovered image-making at different parts of the planet at around the same time, when there could not possibly have been any question of connection or influence. It is an extraordinary leap in our understanding of the origins of human image-making.
In truth, no work of art ever does entirely what you expect. That is why it is art, and worth spending time with. Even a painting as familiar as Édouard Manet's Bar at the Folies-Bergère, which I stared at endlessly as a student, revealed itself anew to me when I reached the chapter on the nineteenth century.
I had never really considered how important the invention of the electric light bulb was, and how different it must have been to try and paint the world in the age before electricity – by the light of the sun, or the moon, or a candle. The Folies Bergère was among the first cabaret theatres to install electric lighting, so that Manet's is the first great painting of the era of the light bulb, of artificial illumination.
The history of human image-making is like this, and with it the story of art itself – a long series of lights turning on, bringing with it a feeling of endless, dramatic, unexpected change and sudden illumination.
John-Paul Stonard, art historian and author of Creation: Art Since the Beginning