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ArtPrintCritical dictionary

Art, Image and Technique

Florence de Mèredieu


Were pre-historic men different from us? The engravings from the Côa Valley comprise a book of rather current-looking, open-air images. At the beginning of the long creative process that led to the production of that which we have called objects of art, men from the Magdalene and the Palaeolithic, using rather effective technical practices, instituted gestures that are still ours to this day. The images and the marks that cover the rocks echo with other figures, other tracings of more recent civilisations. Chinese painters, Van Gogh, Paul Klee, Dubuffet, and Picasso dialogue with the men and the women of pre-history. In the work of the painters we most appreciate as well as in the procedures of more contemporary artists, we find the gestures and lines whose living memory was inscribed in the stone by our most distant ancestors.

Keywords: anthropology of image; gesture; mnemotechnic; stone; drawing; figure

At the dawn of “human” times, the men and women of the Côa Valley carved inscriptions of the first forms and first figures into the schist. By doing so, they anticipated the gestures of future generations by conceiving of graphic techniques which would reappear throughout the history of graphic arts and could even be found at the core of current art practices and procedures.

We find ourselves on the threshold, the zone of images  and forms that invent themselves and come to know their first expressions. They encounter their origin in gesture, in that graphic impulse that lengthens the movement of the members, the action of walking, the practices of hunting or the rituals of demarcating a territory. The area of hunting and gathering, the probable meeting places for ceremonies and rituals of these first eras, it was here in the openings of the rocks, as reflected in the meandering river that runs through, that the men of the Côa sketched out their first figures. There they traced their first significant lines

1. The hand and the instrument


The first instrument is the hand, a multi-use utensil able to scratch, mark, draw, shadow, trace, rub, press, and apply pigments to cover an escarpment or to delimit a tracing. The hand is extended further, next, by other instruments conceived as prosthesis and instruments to amplify its ability: stones blades, scrapers, pounding and boring tools, arrows, etc. The hand then succeeds in scraping, perforating, cutting grooves, engraving, drilling, digging… The first tools become instruments of representation. The drawing becomes clearer, more vibrant and more precise. And the rock becomes a privileged surface for perennial inscription; the inscriptions thus succeed in surpassing the barrier of time. In being handed down to us in the present day, to contemplate these millennial images, these object-images, symbols and graphic representations, it seems that they understand us and that they appear to us as having been “written” or drawn by us. André Leroi-Gourhan states:

“The hand thus becomes the creator of images, of symbols that do not depend directly on the development of verbal language but which are parallel to it. (…) the gesture interprets the (spoken) word, and the latter comments on graphism.” (Gesture and Speech, 1. Technique et langage, Paris, Albin Michel, 1964, pp. 290-291.)

The markings establish themselves as the prolongation of the hand. The hand can use a diverse array of shaped instruments, differently sharpened or fashioned, which does not, throughout so-called “history”, inhibit the return and the resurgence of these original markings. The drawing of elegant flexibility in a stalk of bamboo, in each new drawing, each time increasingly lengthened by a 17th century Chinese artist (See Fig. 1. – “How to draw leaves”, Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting) resemble the twisting curves of the horns of Côa Valley bison and deer. The scarring with which Paul Klee ornaments the contours of some of his figures (Fig. 2 – Almost a figure, 1938) recalls other more ancient markings, as in an ancestral retaking of the same determined gesture, attentive and prepared to inscribe (on paper or on a rock surface) the same line, brief and repetitive: the tracings and pieces of characters, such as scratches and marks, irregular or well defined, of the first writings! 

         2. Line movement

The most surprising of the teachings that the engravings of the Côa Valley give us consists of the dynamism of their lines, of their multiple effusions which flow and branch out in an immensity of secondary lines: curves, meanderings, ellipses and rounded lines, angles and linear markings, grids and scarring. A cascade of forms. These lines move in circles and juxtapose themselves, constantly initiating new movements which lose themselves in ever-rounding curves. And thus emerge the first figures in the world of forms.

What is an “image” or a “figure” if not a mark that resists and repeats itself, an insistent form, an object that is nameable, recognisable and able to traverse the centuries? The bison, these animals which lived in the Palaeolithic and the Magdalene, leap about today as they did on their first days of creation. For our part, we can recognise them and name them. Identify them. We remain sensitive to that blood and that energy which enlivens the contours of its mane and the reiterated and repeated movement of its nodding head, in a like fashion to those Picasso figures which go back and forth between different stages of the same gesture. Or to this animal movement, this movement of something alive, which could just as well be that of vegetation pushed about by the wind which Chinese dynastic painters took pains to place in their drawings.

“Those which walk about, it is as if they have departed; those which fly, it is as if some of them are following the others; those which fight, it is as if they are raising their arms; those which sing, it is as if they are making their abdomens vibrate; those which jump, it is as if they are stretching their legs…” ("Secret for painting one hundred insects", Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, Paris, You-Feng, 2000, p. 363.)


These representations emerge from the limbo and the mists of pre-history. Intact, precise. These figures are still legible and decipherable, thus assuring an amazing process of communication. The world in which our ancestors lived is still our world. And we enter with all full rights into its history. Time – this time which we qualify as “pre-historic” – does not appear from the outset as an obstacle to communication, but rather constitutes a bond or place of passage able to provide for the most fertile exchanges which can transport us to a universe of “other” which (miraculously) is still ours…


  1. The memory of the stone

Like a lithographic stone which preserves the forms and marks of its successive engravings (that which is called “memory of the stone” by those who take up such craft), the schist and granites of the Côa Valley have witnessed the accumulation over time of an immense amount of successive lines and marking. Like a palimpsest where it is possible to unite, inscribe or associate one thousand and one figures in and amongst themselves. Executed basically from a secure gesture and without possible regret, the line is enhanced in the following generation by the adding on of another pathway and new meanings.

We dream of the exuberance of the line that Van Gogh described, with the madness of the line which seems to suffer from an attack of ataxia* and which is from then on deprived of a central core, a line which has become like a rhizome and which goes from stone to stone along the valley.

Van Gogh observed that Japanese art,

“studies a single blade of grass. But this blade of grass leads [the artist] to draw all the plants, then all the seasons, the grand spectacle of landscapes, finally animals and the human figure. (…) [This is] what we are taught by these simple Japanese who live in nature as if they themselves were flowers.” 

Like the Japanese who came after them, the men and women of the Côa Valley transposed their universe into a cosmogony on the surface of the rocks, thus marking their territory, inscribing the rock with information necessary for the cohesion and survival of the group.

Perhaps the men never had rules for their markings at a spot such as this, in the open-air. The harshness of the location as well as the graphic wanderings that it consents to, could even evoke feelings of envy in the future aficionados of land art, artists who emerged at the end of the 1960s (such as Michael Heizer, Robert Morris, Richard Long, and Walter de Maria) and who used the earth and the landscape as a support and raw material for their work, created in situ. That is to say, in the heart of nature and in the open air; in the wilderness or in the forest, digging into the earth or marking figures on the landscape.

The cosmogonic markings of the Côa Valley display, probably, a much more popular and broader function. The aesthetic function is found integrated into a set of rituals that can be interpreted as polysemic: educational, economic, religious,… The figures and the symbols here carry the value of use, not as yet having been established as the figures or separate “essences” that would come to characterise our “historical” and “western” conception of art.


  1. The codification of the markings

This grouping of seventeen kilometres of “tattooed rocks” of engraved stones and cursive lines which extends out into all directions, appearing as well in the smallest cracks, certainly informs us about the practices and customs of pre-history. However, they refer us back, above all, to our own gestures and techniques as well as to the way in which we, for our part, know how to reproduce, draw and figure our environment through the use of increasingly cerebral and sophisticated techniques, yet ones which represent an echo, differentiated from that of the ancient markings and which display the same splendour, precision and sense of perfection.

The simplicity of the lines has here as a counterpoint, effectively speaking, the richness and the invention of the textures. The forms emerge ornate with vocabulary coloration which presides over its declinations. The language of words – alive, fluctuating and able to be lost – is added to here by another language: concrete, plastic and universal. And it is on language that the memory of the gestures is based, along with the rituals that we could practically reconstitute, mark by mark, pondering a certain figure and then moving on to the one that succeeds it or covers over it.

Paul Klee, at the beginning of the 20th century wished to return to the zero point of creation, retrieving original gestures, the ancestral tracings and textures which he could then inscribe upon some canvas or framework, using vibrant colours, those which he knew well were primordially inscribed on natural support materials: sand, stone, and schist hills and slopes

“Lines and marks, in their diversity, spots, small touches; smooth or bumpy surfaces, splits or cracks; wave-like movements; coordinated or jerky impulses, articulated and composed; contradictory energies; embroideries, woven fabric, knots; gravelly parts, chipped parts. Singular and plural. Lines which wear out or vanish or markings that become reinvigorated, that depart and let fly (dynamism)” (Paul Klee, Creative confession, 1920, quoted in Nello Ponente, Klee, Genève, Skira, 1960, p. 58.)

Here we reencounter the elaboration of the grouping of graphic signals common to so many artists and artifices: from the drawings of Van Gogh (those drawings–lines of force of the landscapes and the vegetation, of the diverse undulations and the circular tracings in the sky, what he so minutely describes to his brother Théo is his prolific correspondence) to the models bequeathed by the old masters of Chinese painting in its ancient treatises on painting (Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting). Points. Shading. Tracings. Grids. Cupolas... Floating and complex lines of bamboo and other plant motifs whose rich tracing populate the paintings that enrobe Chinese civilisation.

The painter Jean Dubuffet at the end of the 1950s sought to bring to his work the richness and the random dimension of stone textures (Pierre aux Figures, Pierre de dentelle, Terre agitée). Mosses, lichens, roots, plants which intertwine in the unevenness and accidents in the stone: breaks, scratches, outcroppings, spots, recessions, and bumps. And let us not forget the figures, the animals and the men, the Figures of Woman. It is as if, in the succession of rocks, it were a question of multiple echoes of figures drawn in the Côa Valley. We discover that in each contemporary artist lies a geologist, an archaeologist, and even a pre-historic person…And it is there, in the scars and scarification’s etched in the stone that memory is in play.


  1. The sensuality of the marking

The head of the bison turns to one side; the horse rears up on its hind legs; lines extend and flow out in all directions. The stone is porous and tactile. Alive. Outside, day and night follow one another; the seasons come and go; the evening stars give way to the noonday heat. Specifically, the waters continue to run and irrigate the plant life and quench the thirst of men as in the primordial times. As for our senses, they are always on alert, ready to reach out to touch all textures and trace with the curve of the hand an animal’s flank, the circularity of a stone, the hide, brown or dappled, the line of retreat, the dispersive gesture. The line is sensual and even more so the multiplicity of the lines which recount their encounters, their embraces and their combats, telling a thousand and one stories.

Degas in the 19th century was able in his sketches to capture the sensuality of the animal in that movement of the horse in which it echoes or gives counterpoint to the steps of the ballerina. We recall the painting of the Grand Odalisque by Ingres whose back had one extra vertebra, the vertebra or support of movement, nerve (or alibi) for all sensuality.


“Mr Ingres’ pencil drawings follow a tremendous graciousness: the back never appears to be smooth and long enough, nor is the neck delicate enough, nor are the thighs satisfactorily soft, as well as all the other curves of the bodies which carry the eye to wrap around them and touch them rather than to just observe them” (Paul Valéry, Degas, Dance, Drawing, 1938, Paris, Gallimard, 1965, p.111.)


This plural and polymorphic line which runs along the Côa Valley comprises the most sensual and complex of the lines, boldly moving from schist to schist, tumbling and losing track along the fracturedness of the rocks, repeating and dividing, here thinning out, there thickening up, turning around, backing up and then defying and disappearing, transforming into a grid farther on or a dense framework. The line gets knotted. The lines seem to make up a braiding or a tapestry. The rock appears speckled with stars, as in a display of deliciously graphic planets.

Describing the errant wandering of the line, Paul Klee imagines it crossing a landscape, a small river, a field or a forest, at one point curving slightly, at another zigzagging, here looking shield-like and there like a snail. The lines whose movements accompany the rocks of the Côa Valley follow an even more ancient path, navigating as if posted or chiselled, emerging as shading and bordering, arrows and arabesques. These lines caress the stone, crossing over its flesh and muscle, and inscribing and drawing powerful and hieratic figures.

A type of pleasure or inebriation of the line can be seen here, for all the lines, for the images, for the gestures and for the figures. All of them adorn the stones of the memory as constellations, drawing the registry of an earthly Milky Way. It is our great joy that we can reencounter the movements of the hands of our ancestors, this gesture which consists of (and always consists of) trimming, cutting, crossing, piercing and drawing one thousand and one figures.



* Ataxia: absence or difficulty in coordinating voluntary movements due, for example, to an attack on the spinal medulla or cerebellum” (Definition taken from the Dictionnaire Larousse).

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