I went to see Herzog's movie of Chauvet cave just to see the art and to have a chance to see more than a small part of a cave to get a better feeling for the context of these paintings. Chauvet cave is carefully preserved and the general public is not allowed to enter. Only a very few people have entered it in the last 10,000 years.
A few years ago, my wife Esther and I visited the Niaux cave. A dozen of us were lead a couple of hundred yards into the cave, each pair of us sharing a light, all the while wondering at the daring men who ventured into this place with oil lamps to paint on its walls.
A few of the things we learned then were interesting revelations to me. For a long while archeologists thought that the painters believed their paintings were imbued with magic that empowered hunters. However, at Niaux several of the animals depicted never ventured into the hunting grounds of the people who lived near the cave. Another idea connected the paintings to religious rituals, but the simple truth is we have no idea what purpose the paintings filled.
Interestingly, of the thousands of these paintings found in caves in France there are only a very, very few depictions of humans. Among the human images are a few silhouettes of hands that were created by spewing paint onto a hand held against the rock facing. With these few exceptions, the rest of the images are of animals. Animals only. No backgrounds. No settings. No context.
Our guide in Niaux said that we were seeing only a small portion of the cave. There were several rooms of paintings, he said, and that in each room a particular animal dominated. For him the cave was much like a cathedral where each nook and chamber had a different purpose, a tribute to a different idea. Gregory Curtis suggests that the animals may represent clans and the arrangement within the cave may in some way have described the relationship of the tribes.
What I find baffling is the question of where and how these artists learned to draw so well. Paintings of this quality require practice, and lots of it, but the paintings found in the large chambers are not practice pieces. The multitude of small drawings found in the nooks of of these caves were not those of the great artists; nor were they practice sketches by the great artists in all likelyhood. Certainly the carvings on tools and utensils could have provided some of the essential training, but I am awed by the skill, vision and ability that these artists developed in a time without paper and charcoal at hand to practice, practice, practice.
The other thing that I find overwhelming, so much so that I can't comprehend it, is that the drawing style remained consistent over a period of 22,000 years! What social context can account for this? By asking such a question, I recognize how little, how very little we know about these artists and what motivated and influenced them. Unfortunately, it seems, we will never really know much more about them than we do now. The time that has lapsed between us and them is too great and the peripheral evidence is to little for us to gain much certain knowledge. The cave painters are as alien to us as creatures from another planet.
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