Custom and Myth

Page: 92

Fig. 1.  An Australian Shield

Anyone who will look through a collection of Australian weapons and utensils will be brought to this conclusion. The shields and the clubs are elaborately worked, but almost always without any representation of plants, animals, or the human figure. As a rule the decorations take the simple shape of the ‘herring-bone’ pattern, or such other patterns as can be produced without the aid of spirals, or curves, or circles. There is a natural and necessary cause of this choice of decoration. The Australians, working on hard wood, with tools made of flint, or broken glass, or sharp shell, cannot easily produce any curved lines. Everyone who, when a boy, carved his name on the bark of a tree, remembers the difficulty he had with S and G, while he got on easily with letters like M and A, which consist of straight or inclined lines. The savage artist has the same difficulty with his rude tools in producing anything like satisfactory curves or spirals. We engrave above (Fig. 1) a shield on which an Australian has succeeded, with obvious difficulty, in producing concentric ovals of irregular shape. It may be that the artist would have produced perfect circles if he could. His failure is exactly like that of a youthful carver of inscriptions coming to grief over his G’s and S’s. Here, however (Fig. 2), we have three shields which, like the ancient Celtic pipkin (the tallest of the three figures in Fig. 3), show the earliest known form of savage decorative art—the forms which survive under the names of ‘chevron’ and ‘herring-bone.’ These can be scratched on clay with the nails, or a sharp stick, and this primeval way of decorating pottery made without the wheel survives, with other relics of savage art, in the western isles of Scotland. The Australian had not even learned to make rude clay pipkins, but he decorated his shields as the old Celts and modern old Scotch women decorated their clay pots, with the herring-bone arrangement of incised lines. In the matter of colour the Australians prefer white clay and red ochre, which they rub into the chinks in the woodwork of their shields. When they are determined on an ambush, they paint themselves all over with white, justly conceiving that their sudden apparition in this guise will strike terror into the boldest hearts. But arrangements in black and white of this sort scarcely deserve the name of even rudimentary art.

Fig. 2.  Shields

Fig. 3.  Savage Ornamentation

The Australians sometimes introduce crude decorative attempts at designing the human figure, as in the pointed shield opposite (Fig. 2, a), which, with the other Australian designs, are from Mr. Brough Smyth’s ‘Aborigines of Victoria.’ But these ambitious efforts usually end in failure. Though the Australians chiefly confine themselves to decorative art, there are numbers of wall-paintings, so to speak, in the caves of the country which prove that they, like the Bushmen, could design the human figure in action when they pleased. Their usual preference for the employment of patterns appears to me to be the result of the nature of their materials. In modern art our mechanical advantages and facilities are so great that we are always carrying the method and manner of one art over the frontier of another. Our poetry aims at producing the effects of music; our prose at producing the effects of poetry. Our sculpture tries to vie with painting in the representation of action, or with lace-making in the production of reticulated surfaces, and so forth. But the savage, in his art, has sense enough to confine himself to the sort of work for which his materials are fitted. Set him in the bush with no implements and materials but a bit of broken shell and a lump of hard wood, and he confines himself to decorative scratches. Place the black in the large cave which Pundjel, the Australian Zeus, inhabited when on earth (as Zeus inhabited the cave in Crete), and give the black plenty of red and white ochre and charcoal, and he will paint the human figure in action on the rocky walls. Later, we will return to the cave-paintings of the Australians and the Bushmen in South Africa. At present we must trace purely decorative art a little further. But we must remember that there was once a race apparently in much the same social condition as the Australians, but far more advanced and ingenious in art. The earliest men of the European Continent, about whom we know much, the men whose bones and whose weapons are found beneath the gravel-drift, the men who were contemporary with the rhinoceros, mammoth, and cave-bear, were not further advanced in material civilisation than the Australians. They used weapons of bone, of unpolished stone, and probably of hard wood. But the remnants of their art, the scraps of mammoth or reindeer bone in our museums, prove that they had a most spirited style of sketching from the life. In a collection of drawings on bone (probably designed with a flint or a shell), drawings by palæolithic man, in the British Museum, I have only observed one purely decorative attempt. Even in this the decoration resembles an effort to use the outlines of foliage for ornamental purposes. In almost all the other cases the palæolithic artist has not decorated his bits of bone in the usual savage manner, but has treated his bone as an artist treats his sketch-book, and has scratched outlines of beasts and fishes with his sharp shell as an artist uses his point. These ancient bones, in short, are the sketch-books of European savages, whose untaught skill was far greater than that of the Australians, or even of the Eskimo. When brought into contact with Europeans, the Australian and Eskimo very quickly, even without regular teaching, learn to draw with some spirit and skill. In the Australian stele, or grave-pillar, which we have engraved (Fig. 4), the shapeless figures below the men and animals are the dead, and the boilyas or ghosts. Observe the patterns in the interstices. The artist had lived with Europeans. In their original conditions, however, the Australians have not attained to such free, artist-like, and unhampered use of their rude materials as the mysterious European artists who drew the mammoth that walked abroad amongst them.

Fig. 4.  An Australian Stele

We have engraved one solitary Australian attempt at drawing curved lines. The New Zealanders, a race far more highly endowed, and, when Europeans arrived amongst them, already far more civilised than the Australians, had, like the Australians, no metal implements. But their stone weapons were harder and keener, and with these they engraved the various spirals and coils on hard wood, of which we give examples here. It is sometimes said that New Zealand culture and art have filtered from some Asiatic source, and that in the coils and spirals designed, as in our engravings, on the face of the Maori chief, or on his wooden furniture, there may be found debased Asiatic influences. {286} This is one of the questions which we can hardly deal with here. Perhaps its solution requires more of knowledge, anthropological and linguistic, than is at present within the reach of any student. Assuredly the races of the earth have wandered far, and have been wonderfully intermixed, and have left the traces of their passage here and there on sculptured stones, and in the keeping of the ghosts that haunt ancient grave-steads. But when two pieces of artistic work, one civilised, one savage, resemble each other, it is always dangerous to suppose that the resemblance bears witness to relationship or contact between the races, or to influences imported by one from the other. New Zealand work may be Asiatic in origin, and debased by the effect of centuries of lower civilisation and ruder implements. Or Asiatic ornament may be a form of art improved out of ruder forms, like those to which the New Zealanders have already attained. One is sometimes almost tempted to regard the favourite Maori spiral as an imitation of the form, not unlike that of a bishop’s crozier at the top, taken by the great native ferns. Examples of resemblance, to be accounted for by the development of a crude early idea, may be traced most easily in the early pottery of Greece. No one says that the Greeks borrowed from the civilised people of America. Only a few enthusiasts say that the civilised peoples of America, especially the Peruvians, are Aryan by race. Yet the remains of Peruvian palaces are often by no means dissimilar in style from the ‘Pelasgic’ and ‘Cyclopean’ buildings of gigantic stones which remain on such ancient Hellenic sites as Argos and Mycenæ. The probability is that men living in similar social conditions, and using similar implements, have unconsciously and unintentionally arrived at like results.

Fig 5.  a, A Maori Design; b, Tattoo on a Maori’s face