The nostalgia of prehistory

Is ‘nostalgia’ a dirty word? Too close to sentiment? Well, if, as I believe, sentiment makes us human, it prevents all sorts of horrors. As a species we are all nostalgic for the past – I suppose it’s logically impossible to be nostalgic for anything else.

However, in ecology there’s something called the ‘Shifting Baseline Syndrome’ (SBS), which in its simplest terms means relating current perceptions to those of (our) childhood. Phrases such as, “In my day…” / “Time was when…” / “In the old days…” / “When I was a lad this used to be all fields round here.” And so on. In fact, this last demonstrates perfectly because if we could live as long as an Oak tree we might say “This used to be all forest round here” because of course fields came much later.

Whereas an ecologist or conservationist should be mightily conscious of SBS (though all too many are not) and should always be aware of how the NATURAL world (minus human influence) would be, I’m now more than happy, yea delighted, to doff my science hat to art and be utterly seduced by SBS, knowing no better.

When we think of art movements, most of us are seduced by Impressionism. After a difficult birth, never out of fashion, it remains to this day a fundamental part of our cultural awareness despite none of us being alive at its arrival. My own significant baseline comes a little after that. Post-impressionism and Expressionism are the art movements I most relate to. Perhaps because this is what my ever-so knowledgeable elder brother introduced me to before I knew anything about any other type of painting, save a jigsaw of a Monet painting of women in a garden.

So, I don’t know if this is why, eschewing all contrivance, I naturally paint the way I do even though I try at times not to.

My SBS seems to involve broken down old things (apologies to Mij, but she hopefully knows what I mean) – wrecks, tumbled down buildings, overgrown wild forgotten corners and weeds (about which, according to AA Milne, Eeyore once said “…are flowers too, once you get to know them.”). My paintings are deliberately unpolished - it matches, I feel, the subject matter.

A recent chat with Sue Austin reminded me of just how much of a caveman I really am, and yet surely this is only continuing a tradition which goes back to earliest human origins: namely, making images on surfaces with minimal technology. It has lasted that long and, after all the cool technological wizardry has become obsolete, will last a lot longer.

Some prehistoric work in progress (better images to come):

A Spanish dream

A memory of Shelelagh

A modern cavewoman


I’d already recognised my own remembered nostalgia for femininity of a bygone era – women or girls seen today as quaintly old-fashioned. The boy can’t help it but, never mind, let's call it 'prehistoric'. I hope there are some others out there who, like me, find these enchanting and as relevant today as romantic impressionistic landscapes or the Downton Abbey syndrome (they are more recent than that). Models and some women friends do but I’m less sure about the men. Any thoughts anyone?

Malcolm Herbert
- 14 September 2017 at 01:07pm

Nostalgia: indeed it is a comfortable place for many people and we all at times yearn for the days that dwell there particularly people who feel marginalized in today's high tech world as we are rushed along on the wave of commercialism.
I think that as time moves forward and all our futures become shorter and our pasts longer maybe we tend to live in the latter more as the comfort zone it offers. We all hanker for those far off days of relative simplicity albeit possibly harder times when people were more content with their 'lot'.
It's interesting to think that our fathers and grandfathers fought in two world wars for their country and in doing so I'm sure many had visions of the idyllic English countryside and believed that is what the fought to protect. Not many I'm sure thought they were fighting for Manchester, London or Birmingham the hubs of commercial enterprise.
So, somewhere deep in our psyche we have this haven of peace and tranquility where we all long to be in the land of nostalgia.

I may have veered off the thread of your thoughts but your message did resonate and set me off thinking.
- 14 September 2017 at 01:07pm

Wise words Malcolm. Thank you for them. What you say can also be applied to other forms of aesthetic pleasure, in this case feminine beauty. I hope that makes sense.
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