Last night I watched the Werner Herzog documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” showcasing the Chauvet Cave paintings. The paintings are from 2 periods between around 35,000 and 28,000 years ago and have been buried within the cave for over 20,000 years, untouched by the outside world and, as such, they are amazingly well preserved; incredible in their detail and beauty.
I found this film deeply moving. Imagining the people who painted the walls, I kept thinking about what they saw, how they saw it and what their lives were like. The paintings had so much animation and vibrancy! Comparing them to later ancient art from the area and further afield it would almost seem that this fluidity was lost for quite some time. Thinking about Egyptian and Near Eastern art from 25,000 years later and looking at the stylisation of form, it’s comparatively rigid poses don’t have the movement of the Chauvet animals (although obviously just as beautiful). These artists understood not just movement but also perspective and the fact that you can ‘stack’ objects behind each other to create a group.
I love these rhinos – who knew there were wooly rhinos in southern France! I think the way they overlap is gorgeous as it allows you to see that there are a whole heard of them, that they are milling around and that they aren’t even all facing in the same direction. The rhino at the back shows a technique that the artist’s have used with other animals drawings within the cave. The multiple lines around the body and the horn indicate that it is moving, tossing it’s head, maybe charging. As soon as I saw this I thought of the Futurists! Duchamp’s ‘Nude Descending a Staircase‘ popped into my head immediately. Or Natalia Goncharova’s ‘Cyclist’.
This herd of horses is one of the most stunning pieces of art in the cave. Archeologists believe that all the horses were painted by one person, with the lowest horse, with it’s mouth open in a whinny, the last to be completed. I really love the shading that gives the animals some weight and volume and they way each animal seems like an individual with distinct features.
I can’t stop looking at this rush of lions. They appear to be running, leaping, pouncing after the aurochs. The aurochs on the top left looks like it is screaming in fear as it tries to escape the onslaught. The technique that the artists have used of scraping back the cave wall to expose the whiter stone underneath has allowed them to create a bright surface for the black medium and has added to the movement with the underlying scraping strokes.
As well as animals, further into the cave there were also drawings that appeared to be large renderings of insects and butterflies. This interested me a great deal; the large animals are obviously very important to the artists as either food or predators, but insects don’t generally fit into either of those categories. That made me wonder whether the artist painted the insects purely because they thought the insects were interesting or beautiful. They would have been painted from memory, which means that the artist must have spent time observing the insects for no other reason than that they wanted to understand them.
I thought about the paintings in this film all day, trying to imagine those people from 30,000 years ago and what they were thinking about as they made them.