Lascaux – A PIlgrimage

Wheeling through the French countryside in a competent car is certainly a cinematically well-established joy.  From the stretching vineyards of the lower Dordogne with its dangerous rotaries swirling with lorries, we climb through the growing hills, ceding le passage on one-lane stone bridges, looping around beautiful farms with languorous suede cows.  Curiously, all sport spanking new tractors –it would be just like France to have a ‘cash-for-clunkers’ program exclusively for farmers.

On advice, we stop in St Eyzies for a meal (not so much), the view (the town is built into a limestone cliff above a river bend), and Museum of Prehistory.  Amid the endless knapped stones and bones are some really great skeletons: a full-scale models of Lucy of Laetoli (we went upright before we got big brains – at nearly 4 million years she is still clearly Jared Diamond’s Third Chimpanzee, compared to the later Turkana boy, whose face is more recognizably human).  The laid out sepulchre of a small ’prince’, buried with beads and ochre a mere 50,000 years ago – the grief is all there in the bones; it doesn’t need the florid language the French find irresistible in their exhibits. We place our feet in the parent and child footsteps through the mud preserved for millions of years (the elder had flat feet).

We marvel at the size of the mastadons and cave bears, on whose canine milk tooth you could serve a good-sized red snapper.  But by far the most evocative presentations are some really excellent films of hands making ancient tools.  You never see anything but the hands, which are convincingly blunt, rough, dirty, and scarred as they drill bone, knap flint, fix a spearhead, or build a cunning little knife for cutting strips of leather.

This is all good preparation for the stunning actuality of Lascaux – the cave that more than any other discovery blows away the mists on our prehistory while simultaneously posing riddles worthy of the Sphinx. Lascaux was recovered late in 1940, as the war bore down on France, by absolute accident.  Four lads were wandering in the hills above Montignac with a dog, Robot (drop the ‘r’ down your throat, purse for both ‘o’s, soften the ‘b’, forget the ‘t’).  Robot was digging at the root of a fallen tree and opened a hole into the earth.  Curious, the boys dropped down the hole and into a cavern of such stunning strangeness that even though they swore to keep the secret, they were back with their teacher 3 days later.

Along the walls and ceiling of this cavern are painted the most convincing animals, far from stick figures or simple line drawings, with expression, dynamic movement, perspective, subtle colouring and even artistic conventions that carry through the whole set of works.

Because of a cap of clay that acted as an umbrella to keep the cave dry and the sealed entrance, the art survived for 17,000 years (quite convincing carbon dating and other confirmations) since deep in the last Ice Age.  You think of Michaelangelo’s frescoes getting grubby after 400 years in the Sistine, or the Mona Lisa or Nightwatch protected by varnishes and lacquers to make it through a few centuries – this well-crafted but rudimentarily prepared art persisted untouched through 170 centuries.  It could not survive its confrontation with modern man, however: first a green fungus (la maladie verte) started to grow on the art, which they were able to clean, but then the carbon dioxide being breathed by the visitors combined to form a calcite coating that choked the whole surface (la maladie verte).  The response was total: the cave was closed in 1963, where it awaits the new technology to clean the calcite without harming the underlying paintings. An entirely new cave, Lascaux II, was built down the hill, a to-the-centimeter exact replica of the old, and then the paintings were copied (it took ten years) using the exact same techniques.

So, yes, it is touristy – buy a ticket and follow the concrete steps with 20 other people – but to step into the cave is to feel the chill of authenticity, to sip on ancient air, the mind rushes forward in recognition and falls back in awe at the same time.  For this is the birth of art.

The Venus of Willendorf is estimated to be more than 20,000 years old, and human fashionings that earn the name of art were undoubtedly around before that.  But Lascaux represents a graduation, a definitive step into the modern consciousness, still millennia in front of agriculture or law, still firmly planted in the hunt.

While the technical skill and dimensionality cannot be disputed, there are still odd anomalies: Why are the beasts’ ears consistently placed behind the horns on the neck?  If these were ‘prayers’ for good hunting, why is the reindeer, the most commonly hunted food in the area at the time, not depicted at all?  No one lived in this cave – one of many in the area; others were inhabited – so how was it used, and how were these figures viewed?

Pollen analysis and archaeological digs have told us quite a bit about the life of the people around Lascaux at this moment in time (the paintings are thought to have been painted over a fairly short time, maybe a few years, maybe as much as 200 years).  Books have been written on all this, and there is no point in recapitulating them here.

The point is that this is a milestone in the development of art.  Who knows how many caves still hide their treasures underground in this and other regions?  Who knows how many have been lost to the depredations of time and water?  How lucky we are to have this, even in replica!

With such art, the separation between Man and the other animals is complete, or as complete as it gets in our animal body. The homo’s who did this are clearly already sapiens sapiens (the man who knows he knows).  That separation and the control over nature that marks it that began with the opposable thumb some 4 million years ago, the control of fire around 100,000 years back, and the ritualization of burial (which implies symbolic thought beyond the animal).  But Lascaux, whatever the practical or conceptual purpose behind this never inhabited but richly decorated cavern, speaks distinctly to us from a past that so often whispers.

It has always been something I wanted to see and it was worth the trip – I offer up a little prayer to the one who was the master painter of these who pre-figured Rembrandt, Michaelangelo, Matisse, Degas, and Picasso.


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