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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 May 2005, 21:56 GMT 22:56 UK
Search for roots of modern images
By Mark Hedgecoe
BBC series producer, How Art Made The World

Two men stand by a Hong Kong billboard, AP
Images that surround us have their origins in the ancient world
Where do the images that surround us come from?

This was the seemingly innocuous question we asked ourselves when we began work on How Art Made The World, a major new BBC Television series.

Little did we know our search for the answer would take us on a journey across five continents, through a hundred thousand years of human evolution and involve some of the most stunning works of art ever created.

We would come to explore subjects as diverse as psychology, archaeology and anthropology, as well as art history. And we'd have the privilege of filming the astonishing rituals of some of the most remote indigenous people in the world.

The question seemed straightforward enough. And on the face of it at least, the answer seemed obvious: modern images come from the modern world, don't they?

Strange truth

The advertising hoardings, films, photographs, paintings and pictures which dominate our lives seem to embody everything that's contemporary about the 20th and 21st Centuries. After all, they were conceived and created by modern artists. But as we began our research, a strange truth emerged.

Kritian boy, BBC
The Kritian Boy is an accurate representation of the human body
We started with probably the single most commonly used image in the world: the human body. Images of the body dominate our culture. They are used to sell us things; they affect how we view other people and even shape how we feel about ourselves.

But what are their origins? We wanted to find the first realistic representations of the body ever created.

And to do it, we began by tracing images of the body back through time: back through the 21st and 20th Centuries, through the Renaissance and back into the ancient world.

Finally, we came across a beautiful statue, the first truly accurate representation of the human body ever discovered.

Called The Kritian Boy, it had muscles, limbs and a body-shape that was truly realistic. It was made in Ancient Greece. And it was over 2,500 years old.

Visual invention

It got us thinking. If modern-day images of the human body have ancient origins, is that also true for other types of image? The answer was both surprising and exciting.

The more we looked, the more images seemed to have origins which lay in the ancient world. The visual inventions and discoveries that dominate the 21st Century were almost always made hundreds - or even thousands - of years ago by artists from an ancient era.

Venus of Willendorf, BBC
The Venus of Willendorf has an exaggerated and distorted form
This seemed true of all the big visual themes, whether it be political imagery, visions of death or visual storytelling. And together with the human body, these were the subjects we decided to base the series on.

The stories that emerged would take us on a journey to find the world's most astonishing artistic creations.

We all know that our political leaders use visual techniques to persuade us, for instance. But the story of how politicians discovered how to manipulate their subjects with imagery took us from buried treasure at Stonehenge, to the hidden gold of Alexander the Great via the ancient city of Persepolis in Iran.

Similarly, the most powerful storytelling device ever created, the feature film, seems an entirely modern creation. Yet, the visual storytelling elements it exploits originate from friezes lining the throne room of Mesopotamia's Nineveh, and the magnificent sculptures of Classical Greece and Rome.

Exaggerated forms

These and the other stories in How Art Made The World make the series the most comprehensive - and eye-watering - account of ancient art ever made for television.

And while researching the first film in the series, on the origins of images of the body, we uncovered something else: human bodies hardly ever look realistic.

They are invariably exaggerated, distorted and twisted into un-realistic representations. The Venus of Willendorf is a very early representation of the human body.

It's a 30,000-year-old statuette which was discovered in a remote valley in Austria. It has a huge stomach and breasts, but almost non-existent arms and face - a body shape that no one in prehistoric Europe would have possessed.

A detail from one of the Riace Bronzes, BBC
The Riace Bronzes show how the Greeks discovered realism and then abandoned it
Similarly, the Greeks, having discovered how to create images of the human form that looked realistic had, within a generation, abandoned realism.

Take the The Riace Bronzes, a pair of bronze statues, were found at the bottom of the sea near Riace, on the southern coast of Italy in 1974. At first glance, they appear to be realistic, beautiful representations of two Greek athletes.

But when art historians looked closer they noticed their chests were too symmetrical, their spines too deep, their coccyx too small to be realistic.

Greek sculptors had exaggerated their bodies to try to make them look like their gods.

It was a bizarre mystery. Why do we have this hardwired human instinct to exaggerate images of the human body? To find the answer, we threw ourselves into the exploration not just of art history but of the human mind.

We talked to brain scientists and psychologists and filmed bizarre experiments with other animals, such as seagulls. And we discovered the remarkable fact that all human beings have an in-built predisposition to exaggerate the body, to take what is valued in our culture and accentuate it in a deliberately unrealistic way.

Universal truths

We began to wonder: are there other psychological universals that help to explain why the imagery of the modern day owes so much to the artists of the ancient world?

After all, we have had the same brain for at least the last 100,000 years of human evolution - so the visual inventions and innovations discovered by ancient artists should have the same impact on minds today as they did thousands of years ago.

It's meant that throughout the series we have tried to find ways to explore our mind's aesthetic hardwiring through scientific experiments and demonstrations.

San painting of an eland on a cave wall in Drakensberg, South Africa, BBC
The bushmen of southern Africa have a sophisticated artistic heritage
It has resulted in some fascinating discoveries, revealing psychological truths like why we're so easily manipulated by a politician's face and why cultures think of heaven as being above us, and hell underground.

Finally - and perhaps most exciting of all - our quest for the origins of the image has taken us to some of the most remote parts of the world, to film the art and ritual of indigenous peoples.

Long overlooked by Western experts, cultures like the Australian aborigines and the bushmen of the Kalahari have sophisticated artistic heritages, which can reveal universal truths about the power of imagery.

At times a humbling experience, this has also included some of the most exciting moments and fascinating insights in the series.

How Art Made The World answers the question we posed ourselves at the beginning. But in doing so, the series also fulfils an even greater ambition. It tells the story not just of how human beings created art, but also how art has come to create human beings. And that's a story relevant to every single person on the planet.

How Art Made The World is broadcast on BBC Two on Monday's at 2100 BST. It is presented by archaeologist, art historian and classicist Dr Nigel Spivey.

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