Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Chauvet Cave Paintings

By Charles Kessler

The other day, I saw Werner Herzog’s new 3-D movie about the Chauvet cave paintings — Cave of Forgotten Dreams (now playing at IFC in New York). The Times reviewer doesn’t agree, but I thought it was a terrible movie: the 3-D effects will give you a headache (especially scenes shot in the cramped spaces of the cave), the music is an obnoxious distraction, there are too many irrelevant, sometimes silly, interruptions, and the movie is self-indulgent and  heavy-handed — typical Herzog Germanic romanticism. BUT SEE IT! It’s well worth putting up with Herzog’s nonsense just for the opportunity to see the Chauvet cave paintings.

Due to the fragile nature of the cave and artifacts, custody of the cave was taken over by the French Government (the official government website for the cave is here), and it has been closed to all but a few experts since its discovery in 1994 by the French speleologist Jean-Marie Chauvet and his colleagues Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire. Herzog persuaded the French government to give him, and a crew of three, access to the cave to film for four days on the condition he worked under careful supervision.

These paintings might be the oldest art ever discovered, possibly an incredible 32,000 years-old - twice as old as the next oldest, the Lascaux caves. But, the thing that’s so remarkable about this work, and other prehistoric cave painting, is it’s as good as any art that’s ever been made. In other words, art hasn’t improved in 32,000 years; it's just changed.

Four aurochs (left), two rhinoceroses fighting (below) and a panel of four horses (extreme right) [Credit: Wikimedia Commons] - click to enlarge.
The skill of these artists is astonishing. In many cases a single line delineates contours of the animals — and with anatomical accuracy too. Other times the animals are carefully modeled. Not only are the animals realistically drawn with great economy of means, but they're also compellingly expressive. The eyes of the animals are tense and alert, and their bodies are dynamic and powerful.
Detail of lions hunting panel. [Credit: Wikimedia Commons]
These artists were even able to portray motion. Several animals are depicted with multiple pairs of legs, as if their legs were rapidly moving (like the Futurist Giacomo Balla's Dynamism of a Dog On a Leash, 1912), or are shown in multiple places in time (like Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912) — effects probably heightened by flickering light. And the means they used to create the paintings were varied and sophisticated. They carefully prepared the walls so they were smooth and white, they incised the wall along contour lines to emphasize the line, and they made use of the curve of the wall to aid in the illusion of volume.

There are no signs that prehistoric man lived in the Chauvet Cave; it was used exclusively for ceremonial purposes. And what a dramatic ceremonial space it must have been! Can you imagine what it must have been like to enter into this strange and dangerous cavern, an open space with tons of rock miraculously suspended above? Originally (before a rock slide sealed the cave about 20,000 years ago) they would have entered through a sort of outside antechamber that had red hand prints on the far wall. Then, going into the cave proper, with only torches for light, they would dimly see drawings of bears and panthers as their eyes adjusted to the dark. Further in they would come to two chambers with vast herds of bison, rhinos, horses and other animals -- more than 400 paintings in all! It must have been awe-inspiring — it still is, even just watching it on film.

This is clearly not the work of amateurs -- this isn't random scrawls or indiscriminate graffiti. It is clearly the work of highly trained specialists. (We can even identify one of the artists because his hand prints have a crooked finger). It’s pretty impressive when you think of it. This subsistence culture, as marginal as their existence was, must have believed that making art was so important that they would excuse certain people from hunting and other jobs and provide for them so they could devote their time to making art (or at least what we today call art).

Charles Kessler is an artist and writer, and lives in Jersey City.


crucket said...

i just watch 'the cave of forgotten dreams' wonderfully done. it left a certain 'feeling' how simply amazing as well as confusing this discovery is...thank you for sharing...

holly fisher said...

Of course we are all glad to have access to this work via WHerzog's film, but as a filmmaker I agree whole-hearted with every word of your discussion of his film. You don't want to be in an enclosed space with such massive ego and questionable taste! hf