WITH WERNER HERZOG
IN “THE CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS”
Thirty thousand years ago. This is when art began. Chauvet Cave. This is where art began. Southern France near the Pont d-arc formation. This is where the first art was made. This is the oldest and the best art. Art never got any better than this.
And the German film director, Werner Herzog, was given special permission to visit this spectacular cave with a small film crew to photograph the marks on the walls made by prehistoric artists. Unfortunately, this film will be shown in only a few art houses, almost none of which are equipped to show the movie as it was shot in 3D. The loss of dimensionality is a genuine one in this case for the artists made use of the convex swellings and the concave niches, which are the natural contours of the walls.
Older but less well known than the caves of Altamira and Lascaux, Chauvet is significant because of the great age of the paintings. Imagine drawings are so old that when the lines were drawn, homo sapiens coexisted with Neanderthals. But Neanderthals do not draw. Neanderthals do not make art. With elegant strokes depicting the animals familiar to the Ice Age inhabitants the two species would be divided between human and not-quite human. Such is the power of art.
“They were here!” Éliette Brunel shouted when she and Jean-Marie Chauvet and Christian Hillaire discovered Chauvet Cave in 1994. Although Brunel was the first to see the paintings on the walls, it was her colleague, Jean-Marie Chauvet, the leader of the exhibition, who would give his name to this unusually large cave. The cave was immediately sealed to the public and only scientific teams were allowed inside. The cave has been mapped with lasers, which are able to draw a three dimensional picture of a long and irregular shaped opening into the limestone cliffs above the Ardèche River.
An iron door has closed the opening originally made by the explorers who sensed the faint whiff of cave air wafting from a slight crack in the cliff face. A narrow metal pathway wends its way along the cave floor, carefully skirting animal bones and the fragile footprints of a child and a wolf and bears.
“Papa, look, oxen.” Like the caves in the Pyrenees, Chauvet Cave had been kept sealed and safe by a rockslide, which covered the original opening where the earliest artists entered. Interestingly enough, Chauvet was the first cave with prehistoric art to be discovered by an adult. The cave of Altamira was discovered in 1879 by Marcelino Sanz de Sautuloa, a nobleman and amateur archaeologist (the only kind of archaeologist at that time), who was excavating near the mouth of the cave when his eight year old daughter, Maria, went deeper into the cavern to take a look. She is reported to have called out to her father when she saw what she though were drawings of oxen which we now know as an extinct version called “auroches.” Like her father, many people assumed that prehistoric people were primitive brutes, incapable of making art, and the cave paintings were presumed to be forgeries or modern day graffiti. It would take seventy years before the paintings would be proved authentic.
A little girl then was the first human to set eyes upon these paintings made 17,500 years ago, but the next cave paintings were discovered by a little boy and his dog. In 1940, Marcel Ravidat and his dog, Robot, found a narrow opening, and he returned with his friends, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas to explore. This cave had been sealed up to the extent that it was accessible only by small curious boys, and, this time, there could be no doubt that the paintings they discovered were authentic. These paintings were about the same age as those of Altamira and perhaps a bit younger. But the way in which the artists painted these caves was quite different from those of the Chauvet Cave, which are, incredibly, twice as old. The artists of Altamira and Lascaux used more color—ochers, burnt sienna, black and red. In contrast to the more austere monochromes of the Chauvet artists, they filled in the shapes of the animals with these natural colors that enhanced the naturalistic effects.
Lascuax and Altamira are both closed to the pubic and both sites have created virtual recreations of the caves. Lascaux has a personal tour. One can visit Lascaux via a video, which takes you inside the cave, providing an idea of the ruggedness of the surfaces of the walls. Altamira has a doppelganger, a duplicate cave that is an exact replica that can be visited by the public, whose moist humid breath cause mildew and mold to threaten the irreplaceable paintings of both caves. Chauvet has the Herzog film, a remarkable accomplishment for the director and his colleagues and those who are the keepers of the cave.
These Ur-artists entered Chauvet via a frontal opening in the cliff wall, but at some point thousands of years ago, the overhang above the cave collapsed and buried the mouth. Like Lascaux, the contemporary entrance is a narrow side passage that is a vertical drop into the cavern. Once inside, deep in the darkness, one encounters, not so much the art, but the sheer effort expended by humans to make art. Clearly, art was so important to the tribes of southern France that individuals were willing to go deep underground with torches to draw on the walls. In Lascaux and Altamira, the artists used small primitive lamps, but, in Chauvet, fires on the floor or torches held aloft had to light the impenetrable blackness. As the torch burned down, the person who held it scraped the tip against the wall to lop off the dead end so that the torch could be reignited. Carbon dating suggests that these black streaks are some twenty thousand years old.
Although the carbon dating has been controversial, it seems that some thirty two thousand years ago, the artists scrapped the wall surfaces to provide themselves with a blanched wall, a clean ground to work upon. They drew the animals they knew—long extinct cave bears (whose bones and skulls are everywhere), maneless lions, leopards, rhinoceroses, reindeer, horses, deer, ibexes, even owls and yes, the auroches. At the beginning of the cave, we see the first sign of what would prove to be the very sign of humanity—the urge to put marks on the wall—a series of palm red prints arranged in a circle by the same artist. This artist appeared to be concerned with making a personal history in the cave, for, further down the passageway, his distinctive hand, with its crooked little finger, reappears. His is one of the few bursts of color in an otherwise cool palette that is enhanced by the diamond-like sparkles of the mineral deposits on the cave floor.
The artists made cunning use of the undulating shapes along the surface of the cave wall to mimic bulging bodies of the animals, their thighs, their bellies. Oddly—and I have seen this effect in no other cave paintings—these artists give their animals multiple legs, as though they were running. The cinematic illusion is similar to Giacomo Balla’s famous the Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash (1912).
As in most of the caves of the prehistoric times, there are few humans, and in Chauvet, there is only one, a partial torso of a woman drawn on a hanging pendulous rock. The filmmakers were not allowed to approach on foot to examine the drawing, much less to view the far side of the rock and the rest of the drawing. Herzog’s crew put a camera on a pole and was able to get a shot of the entire torso. The emphasis on the vulva of the female is reminiscent of the numerous “Venuses” found as small figurines all over northern Europe. Like the animals this piece of a woman is a line drawing, free of color.
The narrator contended that the drawing was a combination of a woman and a bull or a union of a woman and a bull. I say “contended” only because the drawing is very difficult to read but I take him at his word. What interests me is that this theme of the woman and the bull floats though history to emerge mysteriously in the Minoan art of Crete and in the myths of ancient Greece: the story of the bestial coupling of the wife of King Minos with a bull, resulting in a monstrous minotaur. Although he was long dead when this cave drawing was discovered, the art historian, Aby Warburg, who wrote of how the deep psychology of humanity moved like an undertext or subtext throughout the history of art, would have been enthralled.
The contributors to Cave of Forgotten Dreams had what I consider to be a problematic tendency to speculate about why the drawings were done. Most assume that “religion” had something to do with the intention of the artists. Although I can only respect the expertise of these scholars, I feel that speculation can be anachronistic and that the truth of the art can only be far more mysterious than anything we can imagine. It is impossible to put ourselves into the minds of our ancient prehistoric fore bearers. All we can ever know is what we see.
These drawings are strange to us in deep and powerful ways. The approach of the artists remains the same over thousands of years. The idea of “new” or “novel” or avant-garde or rebellion against what ere obviously deeply rooted traditions simply does not exist. Fifteen thousand years separate Chauvet from Lascaux and yet both caves are instantly identifiable as “prehistoric” as “cave art.” The consistency of the aesthetics of the drawings and paintings suggests that art-making may have been connected to ritual, making the “style” impervious to change. But we do not know if the art is ritualistic.
There is some indication that the artists put certain animals together in what we would call “narration.” Two lions, a male and a female, seem to hunt, side by side. Two rhinos clash in combat, tangling their long curved tusks, probably to win a mate. A group of horses run together as a herd, one with its mouth open as though it is breathing, panting or neighing. But we cannot always read the overlapping as an attempt to link animals with each other for one overlapping was clearly a superimposition. Remarkably this over-drawing was done five thousands years after the original rendering.
Superimpositions are common in other caves. So are the handprints, so are the “dots” but we have no idea what these marks mean. Are the superimpositions a form of tagging, a sign of ownership, a record of a changing of generations? What are the drawings? Reportage of a hunt? Prayers for a kill? Worship of the beasts? We will never know the answers but we do know that these drawings are stunning in their blunt simplicity, amazing in their elegance of line. A lion was drawn with a single stroke measuring six feet long. Imagine the confidence of the artist to make such an elegant assured gesture. What are we seeing? “Natural” talent? Frequent practice? An apprenticeship with a “Master/Mistress” artist? The “style,” if one could use such a word, is comparable to a supremely arrogant Picasso or the deft hand of Matisse. The Chauvet drawings are so basic, so primal, so primary and so complete that we have been struggling to return to our atavistic selves, to redeem ourselves as artists.
Werner Herzog and his remarkable movie has allowed us a privileged look at some of the greatest art in the world. He takes us to a place we can never go. We are enchanted witnesses to his journey into the bowels of the earth where the art is secreted. At some point in time, Chauvet will probably be closed in by the innumerable stalagmites and stalactites that are forming even as I write from the relentless drip, drip, drip of water leaking into the cave. The formations seem to take the place of the living breathing humans who once visited here, compelled by the inexplicable need to make art. Rearing from the floor like sentinels, hanging from the ceiling like hovering guardians, these pale shapes are ghosts of artists past, transfixed like Lot’s wife, into pillars, watching over the art.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.