The art of our ancestors
An examination of both the Cro-Magnons who made cave art and the devotees who try to explain it.
Their very names are evocative: Font-de-Gaume, Lascaux, Altamira, Les Combarelles, particularly if you have had the good fortune to visit one or two of them.
These are the caves, mostly in northern Spain and southern France – some 350 of them are now known – in which prehistoric art, paintings and engravings, have been discovered. That means works of art that are up to 32,000 years old.
I'd challenge anyone not to feel stirred by the sheer age and yet remarkable immediacy of these works. They mainly depict animals – horses, bison, lions, mammoths, aurochs, cows, reindeer, and now and then even a rhinoceros or an owl or a human. Works of art that are shadowy, suggestive, bold, repetitive, full of energy and often so skillfully exploiting the formations of the cave walls and ceilings that they appear to have emerged from within them.
They are knowing works of art. Although baffling to us, they know their purpose, and are practiced in the skill with which they are painted or engraved.
And most impressively, they are works of art that have survived eons of ignorance of their existence and now, in the past century or so, have survived the doubts of skeptical scholars, the invasive influx of curious tourists, academic arguments (sometimes prickly and personal), prehistorical specialists' theories and speculations. And in spite of everything, they retain their mystery.
In The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists, Gregory Curtis, who is no dry academic (he was himself emotionally overwhelmed by his first cave-art experience at Font-de-Gaume and this book stems from that moment) offers a survey of the history of response to Paleolithic cave art in Europe as it has been discovered over the years – two caves most recently in the 1990s.
Curtis is a good storyteller, and he has good stories to tell about eccentrics of all sorts of dispositions drawn to cave art, often to the point of obsession. He also examines, fascinatingly, the many theories about, and explanations of, the paintings that have been constructed (and often, later, discarded) over the years.
One of the most intriguing characters in his tale is André Leroi-Gourhan, who "dominated archaeology and anthropology in post-war France in the way that Jean-Paul Sartre dominated philosophy."
Leroi-Gourhan was not a theoretician. He looked for patterns and signs in the caves and what he found led him to hypothesize the existence of "a religious system based on the opposition ... of male and female values, expressed symbolically by animal figures and by more or less abstract signs...."
Yet even though this conclusion was based on visual clues, it, too, became an untenable theory to subsequent specialists.
Even Leroi-Gourhan recognized that in the end he found himself "confronted with a system of unexpected complexity ... as impervious to my understanding ... as a comparative study of the iconography of sixty cathedrals would be to an archaeologist from Mars."
Certain things stand out as almost indisputable. First is the fact that "primitivism" is simply not the way to describe this work. This ancient art, Curtis convincingly points out, cannot with any justification be dismissed as crude and unsophisticated.
More accurately, it was classical, conventional, and involved remarkable skills of hand and eye. To wonder at this art today might, however, betray in us a certain arrogance based on the mistaken notion that art somehow "progresses."
Picasso, perhaps, hit the nail on the head when he visited Lascaux after World War II. He said: "We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years" (though scientific dating shows many cave paintings to be far older than that).
But also noteworthy is Curtis's assertion that "cave art is fundamentally conservative." In our period, art changes radically in such a short time that we can't easily grasp that "the culture that produced the painted caves ... lasted almost unchanged for more than 20,000 years, far longer than any since."
Curtis points out that Chauvet, one of the more recently discovered caves, contains art created as long as 32,000 years ago, while Lascaux was decorated by artists about 18,000 years ago. The time difference between these two caves is almost as much as that between the cave paintings at Lascaux and us. Curtis concludes: "A person from the time of Lascaux would be bewildered by our world, but that same person apparently would be able to drop into the world of Chauvet [and] understand it immediately."
We wouldn't. All the same, Curtis is not alone in having a strange sense of fellow-feeling with those Stone Age artists. Particularly with the way in which their art allowed the formations of the caves to suggest their subject matter. He calls it "seeing animals in the rock" and realizes that this not only "must have been desirable" but was "perhaps even the primary purpose of the art."
This may be a disarmingly straightforward theory, but then perhaps those artists were more straightforward than the prehistorian fraternity has shown itself willing to admit.
• Christopher Andreae has been writing on arts for the Monitor since the 1960s. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland.