Thursday, May 26, 2011

It is art

We went to see Werner Herzog's newest film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. As the title indicates, the movie is steeped in the hocus pocus that pervades Herzog's excursions. Entering the cave at Chauvet with him, we are supposed to feel awe, perhaps even religious tremors. That said, the movie was tremendously interesting, though the relentless focus on the "mystery" of the cave -- and the supposed "dreams" of its paleolithic artists -- meant that the movie totally neglected how the paintings were executed.

Until seeing the movie, I had never paid much attention to prehistoric art. The examples I had noticed almost in passing, especially engraved or incised representations of animals, certainly show expertise in rock carving. They cannot have been "thrown off" in an afternoon. They were obviously consciously intended, for what purpose the archaeologists have not yet discerned, yet they do seem communal and perhaps representative of social values -- as at left, from Sweden, showing three men perhaps performing a ritual. An interesting point in Herzog's movie is that Neanderthal man, though he made tools, did not produce "symbolic representations." That distinction belongs to homo sapiens. Humans seem to have wanted to preserve memories.

According to the movie, the paintings at Chauvet date to at least 30,000 years ago. There is some controversy concerning that dating, despite the "scientific methods" (e.g., carbon dating) used, because the analysis has been carried out in a single French lab, one that also has sole jurisdiction over the cave. I would suspect also that the paintings were made in various stages. Perhaps some were begun on June 7 30,000 years ago, and others in 29,000. If so, we are talking about the difference between, say, the Book of Lindisfarne and Jacques-Louis David. Judith Thurman, in The New Yorker, calls the Chauvet painting of of horses and rhinos at the top of this post a "frieze." It strikes me, however, that the individual elements -- the horses, the rhinos -- might have been done at different times and by different hands.


The row of horses certainly seems "advanced" in comparison with other paintings in the same cave. Note the use of perspective with several of the horses on the same plane. According to the British sculptor John Robinson, the "panel" (as he called it), smudging had been used to produce shadow. The painter had also highlighted the outer edge of the drawing by chiseling into the white rock surface. I have also learned that, after sketching outlines in charcoal, in some cases red ochre (as in the painting of a horse from Lascaux) or charcoal would be spit, sometimes using a narrow tube, to create the infill. (For more information about Chauvet go to Don's maps.)

Nevertheless, whether they were painted 10,000 or 30,000 years ago, one has to say that the Chauvet horses are "art." They seem to have no utilitarian purpose, but are there for themselves. Their value, as Roger Scruton, has written in his small book on beauty, resides in them and not in their purpose. The technique for creating these works suggests they were not done in the laborious and time-consuming manner of rock carvings. Thus, there was more play involved.

1 comment:

Zentrist said...

It strikes me that what play and work CAN have in common is the pursuit of excellence. It seems also that what we are seeing here is the beginnings of the "discovery of the mind" that climaxes in Homer. Or maybe it's the discovery of the Geist. At any rate the human being constantly strives to improve himself, even to "transcend." Finally, I seem to recall our art history prof (forty years ago almost) discussing the Lascaux painting in terms of an aspect of religious worship...the artist seeks to praise and to protect.