Friday, April 22, 2011

The Amazing Gifts of Ice Age Artists

Courtesy of Miroslav Fišmeister
I recently came across this picture of the Lions of the Chauvet Cave in France, one of many spectacular panels of drawings, or paintings, discovered there. The paintings there are the oldest known, carbon-dated to approximately 33,000 years ago, almost twice the age of the Lascaux cave paintings.­­­ The forms and movements, the lines and grace of the animals, show incredible talent. The cave painters smudged charcoal to create shadows and depth, they incised lines into the white stone to emphasize certain features—all with charcoal, bits of pigment, and stone or bone knives on rough cave walls. By firelight.
Jean-Baptiste Oudry
Imagine what they might do with the tools we take for granted: brushes, canvas, a limitless palette of colors. Michaelangelo, move over.
Here's a male leopard by 17th century French wildlife artist, Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1686-1755). An elegant painting, but it doesn't have the graceful spine of the Chauvet lionesses (I think they're female). To me, they're slinking, probably stalking something, maybe wary of the cave bear they're about to tackle. I may have to re-read Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear. If I remember, she visited the Lascaux caves and studied them before she wrote the novel.
This is a "portrait" of a woman found in Dolní Věstonice, south of Brno, Czech Republic. Possibly the oldest known replica of a human head, it was carved from a mammoth tusk. The woman has an "awry," or deformed, face. The skeleton of a woman with just such a face, having traces of a long jaw joint inflammation, was also found at Dolní. The grave and its contents indicated a very prominent or powerful person, so there's much speculation that it's the same person, possibly a shaman or mystic.

Next to her I placed a sculpture of Nefertiti, found in the studio of Thutmose, considered the official court sculptor of Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten, who died in 1336 BC or 1334 BC. There are many similarities in the pieces, considering that one was carved with crude tools thousands of years before.
Courtesy of Miroslav Fišmeister

Keith Schengili-Roberts

I wonder if the storytellers used the paintings to enhance their tales, keeping their audience spellbound through long winter evenings. The stories probably had all the elements we look for today, interesting characters, a riveting plot, conflict--breathtaking cliffhangers. I can see it, flickering firelight, children falling asleep on their parent's lap, the artist among them inspired to create another painting.
When you're thinking how far we've come, consider the Lions of Chauvet. The cave wasn't discovered until 1994. Skeletal remains of a mammoth, lions, and a number of cave bears, carbon-dated to the same time period, were also found in the cave.
By the way, the photographs of the Lions and the mammoth carving of the woman's head were taken by my friend Miroslav Fišmeister. One day I'd like to show you more of his gorgeous pictures, taken around Brno, Czech Republic.
A couple of interesting sites:


Polly said...

And I assume this is all research for a book? This one I can't wait to read. I found it interesting that no human bones were found in the cave.

Maryn said...

Having been an art major who loved art history, this is an interesting post. I remember studying the Lascaux caves, long before 1994.

Ellis Vidler said...

I want to put it in a book, but I have to work out the story. I have the characters and part of the idea, but I'm not there yet.

Henry Psanec said...

That's a very nice article!

I often thought how come that even the greatest modern painters always created such strange (i. e. zoologically incorrect) paintings of large felines. It's hard to say, but maybe because the big cats these artists could see were observed at "zoos" and seen as something just to add grace to a king's court, not as the proud and incredible predators? Of course, when it comes to decadence, animals were seen as pure objects of art (woeful!); and until very recently, any zoo was a horrible place. Prehistoric men, though, they knew the animals perfectly; and it's intriguing to think about the fact that they produced way better art in those extreme conditions (not to mention the fact that there probably were no artists as such - they had to be hunters, fathers etc. as well).

Some of this art surely had cult purpose - there are paintings into which the hunters used to shoot to ensure a good hunt; others (e. g. the famous oldest sculpture in the world, the Tuc d'Audoubert sculpture of bison bull and cow were used during rites of passage (coming of age)...

The most incredible story about the effect of prehistoric art I know is this: when the Altamira paintings were discovered, don Sautuola, the owner of the cave, was accused of forging them - some years before the discovery, he had had a mute painter in his chateau to restore the paintings there (in the chateau). People naturally asked sarcastically: 'Oh, a mute painter? Why a mute one, eh?' This painter obviously found his name in the press and asked don Marcelino if he could come to visit him again and see the paintings. Don Marcelino said 'yes' and he found out that the painter was not born mute, but got mute after an accident during his childhood when a ceiling of a hole where he was hiding during a child play fell on him. They entered the cave and stopped in front of the attacking bison which is the personification of prehistoric art. "How delightfully captured the animal is", a voice said. It was the painter. The experience and the impression and the beauty enabled him to speak again - his voice came back.

Ellis Vidler said...

Henry, what a wonderful story about the mute painter. And now I must find more about the Altamira paintings and the bison bull and cow. I ordered a book on the Chauvet paintings. There's one picture of the lions where she's slinking. The single line of her spine tells the whole story. It's such incredible work. I didn't know anything about them until I found Mirek's photograph. That's serendipity!

Sandy Cody said...

Fascinating and beautiful - proof that art is neither old nor new, but timeless. thanks for sharing.

Donnell said...

Ellis, wonderful article. I find art fascinating as well, though, I confess, these people and their talented muse are on a different plain than writers' muse in my opinion. I wonder if we use the same parts of our brains.

Yes, I think they were storytellers, and, yes, imagine what computer graphics could have tone to their images.

One of the most compelling books I've read is by author Jack Williamson and Darker than You Think. The book came illustrated -- brilliantly so. I wonder why books aren't illustrated anymore. Besides the obvious money issues surrounding it.

Children's books obviously, but I wonder if it's that thanks to so many different mediums, they no longer thing it necessary or profitable.