“The Thinker”


Last weekend, while reading an art history book, I came across a familiar face, that of “The Thinker”. No, I’m not talking about Michelangelo’s Lorenzo de Medici or Rodin’s famous sculpture. I’m talking about Neolithic man’s version of “The Thinker”. Last time I saw it was in elementary school history class.  Never thought of it ever since.  And now there he was, with his companion piece, “Seated Woman”.  I was impressed.

The "Thinker" & the "Seated Woman" - Masterpieces of Neolithic Art by londonconstant.

 The two clay statuettes were found in 1956 in Cernavoda, Romania, in a tomb near the Danube. They originate from the Hamangia culture, an early farming society emerging in the sixth millenium B.C. They were found among other similar, but headless figurines. There seems to be no unanimous agreement on the age of the artifacts, various sources dating them somewhere between 2500 B.C. and 6000 B.C.

There are plenty of other statuettes from the Neolithic, but none of what I’ve seen so far show the level and care for form, gesture and emotional involvement of these figurines, clearly the work of an artist.

The woman is seated very casually, with her arms resting on one knee. Her robust thighs and hips show the usual Neolithic approach to femininity (i.e.fertility), but look at the well defined hands gently positioned on the knee.  A very sensual and subtle portrayal of the woman indeed.

 the-thinker

 Can it get any better than this?  Is sure can. The artist shows even more concern for the male figure. He is seated on a meticulously modelled, realistic stool.  Lost in thought, his facial expression and suggestive gesture show anguish and worry. The artist made a conscious effort to articulate his subject’s state of mind. If the statuette were to be used for religious ritualistic purposes, he needn’t do that. I suspect he made the figures for his own pleasure, like  all artists do. The heavily stylized anatomy and the facial expression look very contemporary to us. The Thinker’s arresting presence conveys a feeling that perhaps what we are witnessing is one of the beginning moments of art.  After thousands of years of progress, a lengthy but steady evolution, art has come full circle. Brancusi himself could have carved these figures!

This novelty is a Romanian coin dedicated to The Thinker:

thethinker1leu

 

The picture below shows a modern day copy of The Thinker and Seated Woman.

The Thinker of Hamangia and his Woman

And lastly, this is my sculpture inspired by these two figurines. For more pictures follow the link: http://erikatakacs.wordpress.com/2010/03/10/evolution-new-sculpture/

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~ by erikatakacs on November 29, 2008.

33 Responses to ““The Thinker””

  1. Thanks for showing this. I had never seen it before. If someone had asked me if I thought it could be prehistoric I’d have said no. The streamlining seems just too modern, too sophisticated. What kind of “artist” sat around pleasing himself in those supposedly hard times? Whittlers there always are but this fellow seems “professional”. Yet where was the king or the rich nobles who supported him?
    Also, these figures seem to show that stylized art, not naturalistic art, is the norm. In fact, naturalistic art turns out to be rare.
    Isn’t that little stool the man sits on suspect? Have any others ever been found? I can’t help but be skeptical.
    That he is full of angst or ennui is our own doubtful projection. He must be mourning, which would fit the place where he was found. But the woman doesn’t show signs of anguish.
    I can’t see well but it looks like the woman has no breasts–which are brilliantly suggested, of course. You’d think the fellow who exaggerated her thighs would not have “neglected” that other emblem of fertility.

  2. Swallows, your skepticism caught me off guard, and made me all suspicious now. The art book describes “The Thinker” a masterpiece of the Neolithic. The authenticity of these pieces never crossed my mind, I’ve never seen any references questioning it. I also noticed the unusual breasts, and the stool, well, I didn’t know where to put it. How about the impeccable condition of BOTH figurines? They’re made of clay, afterall. The museums of the world do display their share of fakes, even the best ones (Did you read about one third of Brooklyn museum’s Coptic sculptures being fake?)
    I will look for some info about the circumstances of the discovery.

  3. This is what I’ve found out from Romanian sources:

    During the construction of the Danube-Black Sea Canal skeletal remains turned up on the West bank of the Danube. A team of archeologists found a necropolis, with skeletal remains scattered around because of soil erosion. They also found pottery, jewellery, and headless standing female figurines. They were modelled in the same style as “Woman Sitting”.

    Our pair were not a pair at all, there was no evidence to suggest that-according to the experts. They were made of fired and burnished clay, sized 11.5 x 7.5 centimeters. It turns out they were not intact. They were put together from broken pieces found near some skeletal remains. Which supports your idea of a man mourning. Check out this link, you can magnify the picture and rotate it. His back is quite detailed too. There were no other male statuettes at the site.

    http://www.europeanvirtualmuseum.net/virtual_museum/prototipo_approfondimento.asp?id=26&Type=4&Number=4&lingua=en&par1=Museums&par2=Bucharest%20-%20RO

    I also looked at figurines from the Cucuteni culture, from another region in Romania. They’re much simpler, not personalized or anatomically detailed like these two.

  4. Yes, thank you indeed. I too had never seen this piece. I must take exception to 100swallows interpretation however. To me it seems that art has been created by members of all traditional societies that we have knowledge of without necessarily any organized cultural support directly for the artist. The issue of times being hard doesn’t seem to be entirely determinative. Although I have made the assumption, in the past, that a prolific vernacular art may indicate a society, if not wealthy, at least in a very symbiotic relationship with its environment.

  5. Todd, you’re welcome. I’m not sure what hard times meant in 6000 B.C. The burial ground of Cernavoda consisted of over 1000 skeletal remains, shell ornaments, jewellery, tools and the strange headless figurines with various gestures and positions. It seems they were a well-developed society. They made beautiful pottery with complex decoration, and built tidy houses with one or two rooms. All the figurines look modelled in the same style, which may be indicative of a master craftsman being “employed” by the community.

  6. Todd: That’s it, you know–6000 BC is farther back than any “traditional societies we have knowledge of”. Much farther, in fact. But I am no expert on prehistoric art or prehistoric societies or prehistoric anything, and I don’t know the latest. I had never heard of this Romanian dig, which has been well-known for years, so imagine. The other day I remembered Pre-Columbian pottery and other Indian art and I thought I saw a similarity. But all that was much more recent.
    After reading Erika’s post, her link, and her comments here, I see that there is proof of organization and a clay-figure tradition. So I had better be less skeptical. In this case, though, the style is probably one of a “people” rather than an individual. It was passed down like pottery design for generations.

  7. 100swallows,

    I was extrapolating back based on what I’ve seen and that is not always a reliable way to judge. I agree with you that in all likelihood the figurine represents a style of a people and not a particular artist. I imagine folks working these objects out of local clay for expression of social cohesiveness, for some purpose of “magic” perhaps, for decorative reasons (again social cohesiveness) and for a variety of other reasons.

    As I think of functional aspects of these I am struck with the flat area on the back side of the head and neck of the male figure. This area looks not quite flat actually but slightly concave and seems to lead to the slot that represents the spine. Does anyone have any ideas about these elements? To me it seems very intentional. And, in a way the view from the back seems almost phallic. What was this guy thinking of? Were these items jokes of some kind?

  8. Interesting observation, Todd. Take a look at the woman, her back was also made flat, and there is something phallic about their shape from the back.

    http://www.europeanvirtualmuseum.net/virtual_museum/prototipo_approfondimento.asp?id=27&Type=4&Number=4&lingua=en&par1=Museums&par2=Bucharest%20-%20RO

    Both figures’ left arms were missing, which led again to speculation. Did you see those small holes on the sides of their forehead? They kind of puzzling also.

    Here’s one of the many standing headless figurines:

    http://www.litere.uvt.ro/revista_arheologie/articole/nr2-2004/Iozsa%20Andreea.pdf

    Sorry, I couldn’t copy the image, you’ll have to go to page 8.

    The stye is similar, but aren’t our statuettes different and superiour in their approach? And technique? Look at his realistic back, it’s so good. The craft may have been passed down from generation to generation, as you both stated, but I like to think whoever made The Thinker was a sort of prehistoric Praxiteles. It only takes one person to invent something new and impressive, and an army of copiers will make it their own in no time.

  9. Very interesting indeed. OK, I’m wondering if these objects were attached to some other object, hence the flat or concave backs. They really look as if they were part of something else to me. The other objects, the ones with holes through them, appear to have been lashed or tied or strung on or with some cordage.

    I wish I had more time to study these.

  10. I nosed around the virtual museum site a little and found another piece that seemed somewhat similar and it too had a flat back with an incised spine. Actually, these surfaces are not flat as they curve when looked at from the side, it’s just that the cross sections are relatively flat or concave. It’s another “The Thinker”.

    http://www.europeanvirtualmuseum.net/virtual_museum/prototipo_approfondimento.asp?id=46&Type=1&Number=4&lingua=en&par1=Cronology&par2=7.000%20-%203.500%20bc

    This one really makes you wonder what it’s “thinking”.

  11. That’s another interesting fellow, and very large. Those flat surfaces really make you wonder, don’t they? First I thought maybe the figurines were placed against the wall or some object, but why bother then with the incision of the spine and realistic shaping of the back in case of the Cernavoda one?

    I also thought maybe the flat backs were meant to reduce the thickness of the clay so that they don’t crack when fired. This in case they were made of solid clay and not hollowed. No references mention this. On the other hand the Cernavoda Thinker is quite small, and I had larger solid pieces fired.

  12. Maybe there was some organic element to these pieces. Maybe even something that would get replaced periodically. Some fronds, flowers, or some wooden part that would stand over the clay element. How about a sheaf of grain?

  13. There was something about these pieces that I was missing. Now I know what I was thinking of. A definite resemblance to Cycladic sculptures. For example:

    http://www.artnet.com/magazineus/reviews/karlins/karlins5-22-06_detail.asp?picnum=10

    And one more possible “link”:

    http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Mythology/Minos.html

    Minos, that rich mythological story surely must have very ancient roots.

  14. Oooh, I couldn’t resist also posting this:

    http://www.theoi.com/Khthonios/Rhadamanthys.html

  15. Wow, sexism started way back then!

    Clearly the woman is reclining while in deep thought, hence, this female sculpture should be named “The Thinker”.

    I hate to be the one to state the obvious, but it is conspicuously clear that the male sculpture should have been named “The Tinkler”.

    These figures were found in 1956. Sexism was running rampant at that time. I petition for the renaming of these sculptures. All in favor, comment below! :P~

  16. Todd, I haven’t seen the Harp Player before, it’s an amazing piece. Thank you for sharing, I’ll have to look more into Cycladic art. There is a striking resemblance as you said. I recall reading the Hamangia people were of Meditaerranian origin.

    Kim, maybe she’s daydreaming about reestablishing matriarchy. :) By this time their society was patriarchal. Her gesture seems meditative, passive to me. His is more active.

  17. Obviously they should be renamed…but “The Tinkler”?

  18. The more you look into these pieces the more fascinating they become. They are clearly associated with the neolithic revolution, the shift from hunter gather culture to agriculture. The archaic Greeks were trading with this Hamangia culture via the Danube River well after this period, and they carry a myth of a demi-god that introduced agriculture and is associated with Minos (I have to refresh my memory on all this to be sure and get it right). We can see a depiction of Minos, seated with grain stalks attached to the back of his head (see above links). The “Thinker/ Tinkler” appears to have had some additional elements that were likely attached (see the two holes on the sides of the head and the flat areas) to the back of its head. Could the Greek myth have originated with the same people that made these exquisite pieces? Could this myth be traced back to the neolithic revolution?

    I recently read a fascinating book that examines the Minos myth (along with other Greek myths) that you may find interesting. It’s “The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony” by Roberto Calasso.

  19. One more link. Minos was also one of the demi-gods that were the judges of the dead in Greek mythology and these pieces were found in the Hamangian necropolis of Cernavoda.

  20. erika, the woman is optimistic, looking to the heavens, deep in thought about world peace, how to live better and improve the world. The man is pouting, pessimistic and trying to think of ways he can get her to sleep with him!

    Seriously, they need to be renamed. The artist wasn’t around to have a say in it.

  21. Todd, I did not know Minos was a judge of the underworld, apparently he was the one responsible for final judgement. Christianity borrowed from the Greeks re: afterlife, the Greeks may have borrowed from these prehistoric cultures. So many possibilities, your hypotesis about attachments to the back of the figurines is interesting.
    The archeologists concluded the Hamangia people believed in afterlife, and these statuettes had some kind of a role in facilitating rebirth.

    Kim, I like your interpretation. I’d suggest you file a petition for new titles, and don’t forget to attach your argument. It should convince whoever is in charge.

  22. Kim,

    I actually think the man is thinking about how much he admires her mind. ;-)

  23. “I imagine folks working these objects out of local clay for expression of social cohesiveness, for some purpose of “magic” perhaps, for decorative reasons (again social cohesiveness) and for a variety of other reasons. ”

    I Agree

  24. hello all,
    i’m looking for a copy of the thinker, or a HD picture, if anyone can help me, it’s for a birthday mam’ !
    thanks…

  25. [...] of my grandmotherThe Box – Mixed media sculptureBest Grandmother Sexy or skinny?Best Living Artists "The Thinker"Inspired by the art of Georges Jeanclos [...]

  26. I’ve seen the originals on display at NYC, they are indeed so fascinating.

    BTW, found the “couple” (“Thinker of Hamangia and Seated Woman”) on sale at http://floredana.com/cpg14x/thumbnails.php?album=30

  27. Sources dating them between 5100-4950 cal. BC.

  28. [...] The woman sits on the floor casually, with her arms resting on one knee. Her robust thighs and hips show the usual Neolithic approach to femininity (i.e.fertility), but look at the well defined hands gently positioned on the knee. A very sensual and subtle portrayal of the woman. (Source) [...]

  29. lol! I love it I couldn’t but notice that the male looks perplexed and the female at ease…Romania knows…lol!

  30. Its really cool you post this. I helped me doing my Papers about art and humanities. Thank You! :]

  31. I love hearing that, Shanica! You’re welcome.

  32. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This
    is a really well written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful
    information. Thanks for the post. I will definitely comeback.

  33. […] The woman sits on the floor casually, with her arms resting on one knee. Her robust thighs and hips show the usual Neolithic approach to femininity (i.e.fertility), but look at the well defined hands gently positioned on the knee. A very sensual and subtle portrayal of the woman. (Source) […]

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