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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1129

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In Giedion’s view, art is a fully autonomous mode of the human spirit. He spends no time at all on historical or sociological causation, even rejecting it with some scorn. For a formalist, he is surprisingly indifferent to stylistic influence along a chronological continuum; each great work of art is an independent mode of the human experience and represents an achievement others can use. Great artworks come in clusters; it is very rare that there are revolutionary works of art. Yet each work is a variation on a basic theme, not an item in a line of stylistic descent. One of Giedion’s epigraphs to the first book is from Ezra Pound: “All ages are contemporaneous.” That is, each work, whether from the twentieth century or from 10,000 b.c.e., is equally significant to the study of human history.

Much of The Beginnings of Art is devoted to tracing the development of what might be called a “vocabulary” of art. That is, ancient peoples were slowly developing the forms that enabled them to cope with the meaning of their lives. Before elaborating on this point, Giedion sets down certain basic principles. He states that art is essential for organizing the inner life and reconciling the inner life with the outer world. The most effective weapon for survival in a hostile world is the symbol, and the necessary instrument for symbolization is abstraction. The most important formal means for creating the abstract symbol are transparency, simultaneity, and movement. In characteristic fashion, Giedion intersperses his discussion of ancient art with a discussion of modern art, which has returned to the same devices. Modern art is never absent from any of these books, since Giedion believes that one of the most significant developments of the twentieth century is the recovery of these ancient symbolic devices.

The major symbols of this early period are hands (in all prehistoric and primitive cultures the handprint is featured), circular forms of various kinds (including balls, rings, and perforations), the great fertility symbols (vulvae, phalli, and breasts), and the symbols of bisexuality (he uses the word “androgyny,” but “hermaphrodite” would be a better word since it is the combination of the two sexes into a unit that is important). All these symbols serve the purpose of relating people to the primary forces of life.

Yet the greatest symbol is that of the animal, and Giedion devotes the longest section of The Beginnings of Art to it. The animal is the most impressive of the forces of nature. It is essential food, but it is much more than that; the animal is necessary to the vast interconnectedness of all things, the flow of all life into one. Giedion surveys an astonishing number of animal representations. He is clearly aware of the intensity of the animal symbol, an intensity which may help to explain its significance to ancient civilizations.

The final section of the first book deals with prehistoric human figures, which are rare and almost exclusively bound up with ritual and fertility. It is not the least of Giedion’s contributions to correct the almost universal error concerning the bison and the shaman represented on the cave wall of Lascaux in France. Nearly all the treatments of Lascaux use photographs that show the bison on the level, so the shaman appears to be horizontal. Yet, on the wall, the figure is actually vertical. It is not a small point: The common misrepresentation has led many to attribute a narrative element to the scene, whereas there is virtually no evidence of narrative in the paintings.

The conclusion of The Beginnings of Art focuses on the space conception of prehistory. Giedion makes emphatic assertions: “No artistic utterance exists which does not reflect man’s attitude toward space,” and “The space conception of a period is the graphic projection of its attitude towards the world.” Prehistoric space is endless, without any dominant direction. It has no specific point of view; the world is not seen in its relation to the individual, since the individual is only a small part of the whole. There is no background, baseline, or frame. All is continuity, wholeness.

The Beginnings of Architecture introduces the first great revolutions in the history of art. These were the development of anthropomorphic gods and the supremacy of the vertical. There was now a symbolically dominant direction: Divinity was in the sky. Verticality created horizontality. Verticality also created the axis, and forms were now organized around their axes, with all the possibilities of symmetry that axes afforded. The foundation for the art of the next five thousand years was firmly established.

The first great space conception was a space which radiated volume. From the pyramids to the Parthenon, architecture became crystalline forms, volumes in space, primarily to be seen from the outside. Interiors were either absent altogether or insignificant architecturally and, hence, symbolically. The halls of Egypt were crowded with heavy columns. The cella of the Parthenon was richly ornamented but quite dark, a kind of cave for the image of the divinity.

The second book begins with the transformation of the animal cults of prehistory into the hybrids of Egypt and the Near East (for example, the sphinx) and from that the development of the images of anthropomorphic gods. Recounting this transformation involves a careful and detailed analysis of the modes of representation, and Giedion often relates these to developments in modern art.

The developments in Mesopotamia and Egypt, while identical in their basic symbolic form, were also profoundly different—as indicated by the smooth planes of the pyramid and the stepped form of the ziggurat with its monumental stairway (Jacob’s ladder, the Tower of Babel). These developments are traced in great detail, not only in buildings but also in monumental sculpture. Giedion marks the emergence of the human form as a crucial artistic device. It remained for the Greeks, still within the first space conception, to establish the sacredness, even the divinity of the human body.

The second space conception was initially Roman and represented the forming of interior space. The corresponding technical problem was that of vaulting and, above all, the dome, which was a dominant form through the eighteenth century and, indeed, to modern times. The great variety of styles can all be subsumed under the dominance of the vertical, established in the first space conception, and the necessity for forming interior space.

The third space conception, adumbrated in the nineteenth century, is still not fully clarified. It is something of an interweaving of the first and second, not simply a concern for both external volume and internal space but a concern for their interpenetration. This development is evidenced in both the geometric forms of Le Corbusier and the organic forms of Frank Lloyd Wright.


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