Written by Shane Guffogg
Art Confidential Magazine, Volume 1, Number 7, April 2023 | A Luxury Lifestyle Magazine Dedicated to the World of Art
EXAMINING THE MYSTERIES AND QUESTIONS AROUND THE ANCIENT ART OF CAVE PAINTING
Cave art has always been a beautiful mystery. The more I learn about these haunting dream- like images, the more questions they seem to present. My initial exposure to cave art was first learning about the Cave of Lascaux in France. It is thought those wall etchings date back 20,000 years. For a bit of perspective, the Mona Lisa was painted in 1502 ‒ 322 years ago – a blink of an eye com- pared to the cave art of Lascaux. An- other site in Altamira, Spain contains illustrations thought to be up to 38,000 years old. The oldest known cave painting is a red hand stencil in the Maltravieso cave, Cáceres, Spain. Using the uranium-thorium method, it has been dated older than 64,000 years.
Faced with this kind of information, it is always wise to run through a list of questions starting with who, then what, then where and finally why.
Let’s begin with when. Discovered in 1949, the entrance to the caves in Lascaux was found by an 18-year-old boy whose dog plummeted the 50- foot-deep shaft leading into the chambers. What was discovered was the more than 600 images drawn onto multiple cave walls and ceilings. The who, we were taught, were prim- itive people that lived in caves and seemingly had lots of free time to draw on walls with charcoal and ochre. Thanks to science and the un- raveling of DNA code, it is now thought the people who made those images didn’t live in the caves. There is no trace of that.
Scientists now surmise the creators of these floating spirits were Nean- derthals. This conclusion developed due to a handprint on one of the walls exhibiting a broken pinky. A skeleton found nearby possessed the matching digit of a Neanderthal woman. Neanderthals were known to be nocturnal with large eye sockets. And having vocal chords, it is specu- lated they sang.
Many times the vastness of the caves would snake back into the earth more than 265 yards – equivalent to two and a half football fields. This required the originators of these im- ages to navigate and crawl into the dark recesses of narrow passages.
The larger caves presented their own variety of challenges. It must be pon- dered: how did they see in the dense darkness and draw high up on the walls and ceilings of these immense chambers? Scientists have con- ducted studies analyzing the dirt in particular caves containing images of extinct animals. Among the granules of earth, evidence was uncovered pointing to the existence of rope and wood. The conclusion was these an- cient peoples constructed forms of makeshift scaffolding allowing them to work high up on the walls. A counterpoint to the long-held notion of their primitiveness.
How many in the general population can draw a horse or cow from mem- ory without looking at a picture? Drawing a likeness of anything from memory is quite hard. But if we practice endlessly, day after day, go out and observe a horse or cow, make studies of the shape of the head, the roundness of the torso and how the legs work together to make a cow a cow or a horse a horse, illustrative accuracy is achievable. Without hours of firsthand observations, it would be next to impossible to draw something that has the sophistica- tion of the animals on the cave walls of Las- caux.
Not to be ignored, these drawings are on rough, stone cave walls. If a mistake occurs, it is not like it can be erased. The charcoal or ochre absorbs into the pores of the stone, offering a one-shot deal.
Many indigenous cultures have what is called a Shaman – A person with intuitive gifts chosen by the tribe as communicator with the spirit world to diagnose ailments and prescribe healing remedies. Perhaps the people who ventured into these dark caves to draw images of animals on the walls were also chosen by their tribe and spent count- less hours observing the animals they de- picted. It is not out of the realm to present the notion that these chosen artists modeled preparatory drawings.
We all know Michelangelo and how he painted the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. He did not just climb up the scaffolding and be- gin. He conducted countless studies in stu- dio before achieving satisfaction. That, then had to be approved by the pope prior to beginning his first brush stroke. The interesting detail is Michelangelo would make drawings on large sheets of paper the actual size he planned to paint. Once drawn, he or an assistant would poke tiny holes along the lines of the sketch. He would then climb the scaffolding and press the drawing onto the wet plaster. With a cheese cloth bag filling with crushed charcoal, he would hit the bag along the lines, leaving little black dust marks where the holes were punched. The resulting outline would ensure he would accurately replicate his studies.
Contemporary artist Banksy also etches images on heavy stock paper to serve as makeshift outlines. Once cut out, the images now serve as a template to enhance speed and accuracy. Banksy quickly renders with spray paint what are often politically charged images on buildings in different parts of the world. His images have very sharp lines where the spray paint hits the template, quite kin- dred to the ancient handprints found in caves. The tech- nique pays homage to the prehistoric artists who pressed their palms against the cave wall, and with crushed ochre in their mouth, spit it at and around their hand, leaving an outline.
When we look closely at the line drawings of the animals, we see a sharp outer edge with a soft inner part, tanta- mount to Banksy’s sprayed images. Conceivably, did these prehistoric artists do like Michelangelo, first sketching out the images on tree bark or animal skins? Would they hold the cutout drawings, templates, up against the wall to trace? Or use their spitting technique?
It is quite possible they would look just like the illustra- tions we see in the finest cases of cave art as evidenced from examples of amazing skill and observation in cav- erns around France and Spain.
A decade or so ago, researchers explored one of the caves near France or Spain using a torch ‒ assuming that was the light source originally employed. What they saw were images of lion heads, over lapped, in motion. It was remi- niscent of a flip book where images are rapidly flipped through, suddenly creating movement and animation. Perhaps these artists actually conceptualized the precur- sor to techniques used by an early 20th century Disney?
Secondly, scientists took samples of the Ochre and char- coal from the walls for carbon dating. They found the ear- liest drawings were 10,000 years older than the charcoal drawings that were traced over the top of the original sketchings. Therefore, these caverns were known and vis- ited for 10,000 plus years, meaning they were destination spots. Why? Were they for religious reasons or as a means of telling travelers what type of animals were in that area? We may never fully know. But they were and still are a powerful way to communicate the beauty and mysteries of life.
It is not out of the realm to present the notion that these chosen artists modeled preparatory drawings.