Maybe If It Ain’t Sacred, It Ain’t Art
One hundred miles east of Bordeaux, with its goose-liver and truffle laden tables, hidden from view for 35,000 years beneath vineyards and rolling pastures, is the greatest known example of the earliest hunting art– the Caves of Lascaux – a Sistine Chapel of animal images.
Our planet is more than four billion years old. The earliest vertebrates evolved 500 million years ago, and dinosaurs roamed the earth 200 million years ago. Primates appeared 70 million years ago and took some 67.5 million of them to produce Homo habilis who hunted in groups and made the first flint tools. Homo erectus spent 1.5 million years conquering fire-making and populating the Old World from East Africa to China. One hundred thousand years ago, Neanderthal man appeared, then Cro-Magnon, although they co-existed for millennia until the latter prevailed.
Finally, a mere 35,000 years ago, one of them picked up a sharp-edged stone and scratched figures of game animals onto a flat rock surface, becoming the first sporting artist. Those deceptively simple works express better than any art since the powerful connection between the soul of the artist and the animals that sustain his existence. Looking at what we call hunting art today, it seems that that sacred union is gone, probably forever. And it shows.
We’re not talking about the third-rate metaphors in the limited edition print machine that turns out stuff that would make a chimpanzee cringe. In these Upper Paleolithic rock paintings, bathing wolves in divine light is not required to communicate the crucial tie that binds man to beast. These bison and horses tremble with a significance we don’t quite fathom, but which tugs at some primal core. For our artists who’ve lost touch with that sacred communion, a return to sources like Lascaux or Altamira in Spain is strongly recommended. Magic rubs off.
Hunters tell their wives a man’s gotta go hunting at least a hundred days a year because our ancestors spent tens of thousands of years chasing after mammoths, aurochs, cave bears, and the giant moose-like megaceros. “It’s in the genes.” Lucky for us, it turns out, so is art.
But how do you go from a “pre-sapien” sitting around fires fueled with greasy bones to the Toulouse-Lautrec of the Paleolithic period? The Perigord region has drawn man like a magnet for over 200,000 years. Its favorable climate, natural cliff rock shelters overlooking game-rich river valleys, and the availability of flint and other materials for tools, allowed our ancestors not just to survive but to thrive. Of course, there were minor upheavals, like ice ages, during which mammoths and muskox displaced forest species like red deer.
Living in skin tepees, making scrapers, chisels and handaxes, Stone Age man’s experience with hunting, food-gathering and fishing became chiseled into individual and group memory. Our stinky, brilliant ancestors shared their choice of materials and techniques for tool-making, increasing their manual skills, which led to innovations like the sewing needle. Sixty thousand years ago, they began to scrape out holes for their dead and placed tools, flowers and animal parts alongside the unliving, then sprinkled the body with red ochre, and covered it with stones. Obviously, something was cooking behind that sloping forehead and distinctive brow ridge.
The brain was important, but the mind was more so. Abstract thought developed from the realization that time passes, transforming newborns into old men. Seasons changed only to repeat themselves. Pondering his place among the bison and horses, the sycamore and oak trees and even the stars, Paleolithic Man depicted his own explanation of the mysterious forces of his universe. We call this art.
Now why would Cro-Magnon Man – the primate we credit with the invention of the paintbrush – probe deep into this network of cold, damp, blindingly black caves and passageways that culminate in the majestic 55-foot long, 22-foot wide and 19-foot high Rotunda, just to paint animals? The effort alone suggests a metaphysical – maybe even magical – undertaking. Something symbolic or sacred. What tidings from an animated cosmos would an artist bring to us today under similar circumstances? I shudder to think.
I like to imagine the reaction of those early artists when they discovered 270 square yards of virgin limestone walls – a god-given natural canvas of white granular calcite, whose absorbency naturally fixes pigments. This huge space was conveniently divided into a variety of organic “frames” formed by the molded contours and curves of the cave walls themselves. Add 600 animal paintings – including the largest known painted figures from prehistoric times -- and 1,500 animal engravings, and what do you get? A cathedral of animal images conveying a mystical message about their relationship to man.
We know now that Lascaux was not created on artistic whimsy; nothing was casual or haphazard. Incredibly, dozens of fat-burning lamps, tools, palettes containing traces of pigment, evidence of scaffolding - even the oldest known piece of rope - were found there. This demonstrates the preparation, teamwork and time devoted to the act of painting animals. The greatest mystery of all is whether Lascaux was created by twenty artists simultaneously or by several artists over generations.