Chauvet Cave Paintings / Thoughts on Deep History

Yesterday I watched a Werner Herzog short film on the Chauvet Cave and its 32,000 y.o. paintings, mainly drawings or sketches of rhinoceros, lions and horses. The sequences included poetic and reflective notions and feelings of the European scientists and film crew; if a person is to have deep and moving experiences about our ancestors, wouldn’t it be in a place such as Chauvet? If the drawings don’t affect one as a significant point of contact with the history of “being human” what would or could ever touch that person’s awareness? For people whose experience of human history is no longer than the disappearance of yesterday’s fake news, 32,000 years is at least an imaginable period of time. It’s not an incomprehensible billion or even million years: it’s 3 x 10,000 years.


Reproductions of photos of the art are quite inferior to the filmed version in which the limestone – calcite covered walls are pale and glistening and dimensional. We will never see the paintings as they were while fresh due to changes within the cave itself; post-art stalactites and flow stone cover the walls and floors. The original entrance, into which sunlight would have penetrated, is lost due to rock falls. Nor can we leave behind 10,000 years of human agriculture, technology, mass religion, and the “hoard” of crazy ideas about ourselves, nature and the universe that resulted from recent human “mental” activity. Wiping clean our cluttered perceptions of the nature of reality for these ancestral people is impossible; we will inevitably impose our personal, social and cultural hysteria onto their lives.

But, we can and do possess the effect that the cave and drawings have on us as individuals, if and when and in what form we see them. As for myself, the bulk of my reaction is unconscious – visual; no explanation is needed. Art is what humans do; these people were human. As to their appearance, cave-cleaning habits, disposal of trash, logistics for acquiring material objects, language / no language, social skills, love lives, supposed religion, or beliefs, I’ll leave that bundle of speculation to those that fixate on “creating and controlling narratives” that try very hard to bring remote ancestors into the socio-conceptual fold of contemporary narcissism, and which ultimately fail. If we want to get picky about the competence and creativity of these people, how many present day humans could manage a fair copy of these originals?

Both “primitive” artists, and artists through the centuries, often say that while working, it is as if their hands are guided by a “spirit” of creativity; their own identity and awareness all but disappear. A trancelike state, if you will. “The image or figure came through me” and onto the paper, canvas, wood or stone. Visual perception: it’s the oldest form of human thought and communication. No verbal description could ever replace the drawings at Chauvet (although people try to do just that.)

There is much I could say about my reactions as an artist: the absolute sense of aliveness and activity of the animals, not easy to do; the lack of “sacred ritual reverence” so depended on by anthropologists and archaeologists as an “explanation” for the existence of every human artefact. Drawings deface other drawings – overlap them, cut them off. Animals superimpose animals – an illusion of a mural or gallery is created by drawings being added at intervals, some thousands of years apart. Overall, the impression is of a sketchbook; an individual is practicing, improving, trying to “capture” the essence of a particular animal as he or she “sees it”. Others “copy” – not quite as elegantly. The attention of the “drawer” to his or her own abilities is inseparable from the drawings. These are dangerous wild animals, and yet fear seems absent; admiration, excitement, curiosity and familiarity are conveyed by the unhesitating swiftness of lines and careful shading. The “sense” conveyed to me, is an expression of self-confidence – a timeless attribute of “natural man” to this day.


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