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Book review: “Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave — The Oldest Known Paintings in the World” by Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire

In his 2004 Discworld novel A Hat Full of Sky, Terry Pratchett suggests that people “weren’t stupid just because they lived a long time ago.”

He’s describing a fictional version of the Uffington White Horse which was carved out of the downlands in Oxfordshire, about 60 miles northwest of what’s now London.  As he explains in a note, “It’s 374 feet long, several thousand years old, and carved on the hill in such a way that you can only see all of it in one go from the air.”

In the novel, a character is ruminating about the oddities of a similar Horse and recognizing that the builders of the land form “must have known horses, owned horses, seen them every day, and they weren’t stupid people just because they lived a long time ago.”

To which another character says: “Taint what a horse looks like.  It’s what a horse is.”

There is a tendency to underestimate our long-ago ancestors.  I don’t mean the ancient Greeks or Egyptians.  I mean really long ago.

That’s the point that Pratchett is making in A Hat Full of Sky. And that’s what came to my mind as I read Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave — The Oldest Known Paintings in the World by Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire.

“Madness and dizziness”

Consider the Chauvet Cave’s Lion Panel with its overlapping portraits of nearly a dozen big cats advancing leftward across the rock wall toward a crowd of bison and other animals.  Here’s how Chauvet, Deschamps and Hillaire, the three discoverers of the cave in 1994, describe the finding of this panel:

Suddenly our lamps lit up a monumental black frieze that covered 30 feet of the left-hand wall.  It took our breath away as, silently, we played our torches over its panels.  There was a burst of joy and tears.  We felt gripped by madness and dizziness.

This scene on the wall of what was originally a bear cave was painted more than 300 centuries ago — 30,000 years or more. It was painted, and, then, at some later date in that era, through some shift in the landscape, its cave was closed off. No human being had seen it since then.

Imagine

Pretend you’ve never seen Picasso’s Guernica. Imagine you are in an abandoned, rundown, ancient building, and, in an apartment not opened for decades or longer, you walk into a room to see there on the wall this huge, spectacular, overwhelming great work of 20th century art. 

And, when you go into another room, there’s Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride.  And, in the next, Manet’s Olympia

That’s what it was like for Chauvet, Deschamps and Hillaire, three recreational speleologists, i.e., people who search for and explore caves for scientific purposes, combining skills in fields of chemistry, biology, geology, physics, meteorology and cartography.

Their goal was to find caves that had been used by prehistoric peoples, and, at the Chauvet cave, they hit the motherlode, the oldest cave art so far discovered.  (The three agreed to give the cave the name of Chauvet, their leader.)

“Dominate the pride”

The Lion Panel is a powerful work, filled with energy and movement.  The overlapping of the big cats gives the sense of a pack of the animals stalking their prey.  They are thrusting forward with controlled strength and more than a hint of stealth. 

By contrast, the bison and other animals are a clotted grouping of bodies, unorganized and vulnerable to the organization of the lions.  As the discoverers write:

The animals were innumerable: a dozen lions or lionesses (they had no manes), rhinoceroses, bison, mammoths, a reindeer, most of them facing the exit….

Once again we were filled with admiration at the refinement of the composition.  One of the lions seemed to dominate the pride with its penetrating gaze; its head was drawn with darker lines. 

It’s worth remembering that this astonishing art was created an immense amount of time ago. 

Put it this way:  If the Chauvet Cave were a 30-year-old person, the ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians would be little kids, ages 2 through 8. 

And Michelangelo, Georgia O’Keefe, Vermeer, Monet, Mary Cassatt and Giotto — they’d all be infants of less than a year old.

“Strewn with cave-bear bones”

In an epilogue to Dawn of Art, Jean Clottes, a major expert on prehistoric people and cultures, notes that the initial reaction of specialists to the discovery of the Chauvet Cave was skepticism.

The cave seemed ridiculously ancient, more than twice as old as the Altamira Cave (described as the Sistine Chapel of ancient art) and nearly twice as old as the Lascaux Cave.  And the art was so stunning.

But Chauvet and his friends were respected speleologists, and they knew enough to keep leave untouched as much of the cave as possible.

For instance, they put plastic down to walk on so they wouldn’t disturb the bones and other material that was on the floor.  This was important, initially, to help authenticate the cave and, in the long run, to help experts develop an understanding of the people who used the cave and created the art.  As Clottes writes:

The animal depictions were above suspicion because of their quality and their naturalism.  For them to have been faked would have required the combination of a great animal artist with an excellent knowledge of both Paleolithic art and the animals of the period.

Finally, the very appearance of the floors destroyed any idea of deception.  They were strewn with cave-bear bones….Thanks to the discoverer’s precautions, everything was intact, and it was easy to see the cave was virgin…

“The quest for perspective”

News of the Chauvet Cave, Clottes notes, was startling not only to experts in prehistory but also to the general public. 

For one thing, there was a great range of animals, especially rhinoceroses, lions and bears, as well as “species that appear for the first time, the owl, the panther and perhaps the hyena.”  He continues:

The techniques utilized, that is to say, the way in which these animals were depicted, are also astonishing, especially through the constant use of shading and the quest for perspective, whether it be animals overlapping, bison heads on both sides of a ridge, or even a bison whose head is seen full-face on one surface of a dihedron, while its body is perpendicular to it on the other surface.

The works throughout the cave, including the Lion Panel and much more, weren’t all created at the same time.  There are indications of several or many creators.

Nevertheless, a large number of black paintings are so alike that they are certainly the work of a single great artist, a master draughtsperson, unless this artist was accompanied by certain people — acolytes or helpers — who used the same conventions and techniques.

Stupid and inferior?

Modern people, like the people of any age, tend to be arrogant when thinking about their predecessors.

When we think about life in the 16th century, maybe we’re amazed that the men and women of that time put up with its dirt and smells and a society of rigidly defined classes.  Of course, it was also the century that produced Shakespeare.

When we think of eras without cellphones or airplanes or the internet or running water or scientific medicine, we may wonder how they got through their days.  Yet, somehow, Notre Dame was erected in Paris, and Winged Victory of Samothrace was carved, and the pyramids in Egypt were built.

When we think about the public image of what are called “cavemen,” we may picture people just scratching a living day to day, year to year, vulnerable to disease and injury and early death.

Yet, as human beings, those cave people knew how to laugh and show affection and figure things out and invent.  We shouldn’t underestimate them and think them stupid and inferior to us.

It was no inferior people who made the art in the Chauvet Cave.

Patrick T. Reardon

11.3.22

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