Parietal surveys enter the history of art

Paris. When the prehistorians Leo Frobenius, Henri Lhote and Gérard Bailloud crossed the world at the beginning of the 20th century to record the cave works of our distant ancestors, the stated aim of their expeditions was scientific: the copies of these multi-millennial traces contain as many answers as they do. questions on a still little-known field of history. But from the first room of the “Prehistomania” exhibition – which presents the collections of records from the Museum of Man and the Frobenius Institute – the visitor will have difficulty qualifying what he sees as a simple scientific document. . From the large canvases stretched in a protective darkness emerge a parade of human and animal figures whose artistic value appears here undeniable.

From art to history

The exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme follows with this exhibition the movement of heritage of these records which were gradually falling into oblivion: those of the Frobenius Institute were preserved without consideration until the 2010s, when a campaign restoration brought them back into the light. As a scientific tool, these large drawings made freehand or with tracing paper are now obsolete, at a time when researchers are working with digital replicas of caves. But it is the artistic and historical value of these major surveys which is now attracting attention.

Along the route offered by the Trocadéro museum, the visitor is invited to both contemplation and a historical perspective of the conditions for carrying out the surveys, as well as the intellectual context that accompanies them. The first room consists of an unfiltered dive, and with a minimum of explanation, into this production. After the assumed aesthetic shock of this forest of signs, the history of science takes over, presenting the scientific and human adventure of these expeditions in Algeria, Zimbabwe, Papua, but also in the southwest of France. The tone of the scenography here is more that of a science museum, although the promotion of very large formats, such as that of the intriguing “Dieu Sefar” noted by Henri Lhote in Algeria, is the subject of attention. particular.

On the historical part, the exhibition puts at the center the numerous female figures of this adventure dominated by male names, and gives the keys to a critical perspective on the methods used, such as those very destructive of the original works of Henri Lhote. The evocation of the impact of the surveys on the artists and visual culture of the 1930s, through the MoMA exhibition in New York in 1937 in particular, also allows us to understand that the issue of the expeditions was not purely scientific. . Thanks to this back and forth between scientific, historical and artistic purposes, the route proposed by the Musée de l’Homme leaves a great deal of freedom to visitors in their appreciation of what seems to have become, today, works of art. ‘art.

Elisabeth Pauli in the Altarima cave, Spain, 1936.

© Frobenius Institute, Frankfurt am Main

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