For those of you darlings who may not know, my "day job" is teaching art history to college students. I adore my career and cannot believe I am among the lucky few who spends her days wandering through the history of Western art (for more on this topic, read my post "Do What You Love" from last year).
In an attempt to share my passion and knowledge with you, I am going to start a series examining one artwork in detail each week. My desire is to give you the opportunity to see something visually stunning and to learn a bit about art history in the process.
What could be a better starting place than way back in 15,000 BCE? While I don't plan on taking a chronological course for this series, I do think it's critical for us to remember one truth: "art" has been around since the beginning. The urge to create art is universal and timeless, though its forms and functions may vary.
Nestled in a little cave in Southern France (see, French people have always had pristine taste), are the renowned cave paintings of Lascaux. For the better part of 17,000 years, this cave lay seemingly undisturbed, allowing centuries of Paleolithic paintings to be preserved (paleo means "old" and lithos means "stone, thusly the Old Stone Age).
In 1940, four French teenagers and a dog named Robot stumbled upon the cave and opened it to archeologists and visitors alike. Can you imagine the wonderment of finding such a spectacular spot? Though the cave is now protected and closed to the public, we can still learn much about the nomadic peoples who must have performed ceremonies deep inside this space and about the seemingly sacred imagery on the walls.
We cannot say with certainty, as the people who created the paintings were Prehistoric (meaning that they lived before writing existed), but it seems the images inside Lascaux possess some sort of ritualistic significance. Painted over and over, layer after layer, during the course of thousands of years, the images are buried far back beyond the cave entrance. Those distant people who created these horses and bulls and horned beasts (only one human appears) had to travel into the abyss, led only by the light of a stone lamp lit with animal marrow and a mossy wick.
Today, we notice the images, though rudimentary in form, demonstrate surprisingly sophisticated techniques. From a Pollock-style splatter applied with a hollowed plant reed, to evidence of early scaffolding, to using animal horns to incise the stone, these earliest paintings reveal the astonishing notion that even earth's first people were interested in creating images. Even in a time of survival, these early hunter-gatherers placed significance on the visual. Seeing the paintings at Lascaux connects us with our past and reminds us that we are really not all that different from the ancients.
Feel like hanging out with the cavemen a little more? Check out Werner Herzog's new praised documentary on the other famous French cave, Chauvet: The Cave of Forgotten Dreams.