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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.


Galleries Representing The Caves of Lascaux      The Caves of Lascaux - Works For Sale    The Caves of Lascaux - Reference Materials

What is the sacred Lascaux message that makes this great art? It’s not just about food or harnessing the spirits of the hunt. For eons, dinner consisted almost entirely of reindeer meat, yet only one reindeer decorates the walls. Horses are far more popular. And it’s not about static animal portraiture either, the artists objectively recording their observations. Rather, these panels recount dramatic situations and lively stories. Horses canter, ibex butt, a lion even urinates. We’re watching players in a play, maybe a myth. These works reek of a connectedness, so wanting in our art now, whose significance eludes us although we know instinctively that it is there from the spirit of the paintings.

All the dissertations and interpretations of the symbolism you find in places like Lascaux are boring to read unless you are physically standing in awe in the middle of the facsimile visitors’ caves, Lascaux II. (Discovered only in 1940 by four teenagers, the “real” caves were closed in 1963 to prevent decay from second-hand human humidity and bacteria.) There are enough theories about the hierarchy and dichotomy between the species portrayed here to put the entire Sorbonne to sleep.

What’s important is that these were artists with a capital “A.” They knew their animals close up: We’re talking 25,000 years of hunting woolly rhinoceros and cave lions with a lance or spear, driving them into pits or bogs for that final body-to-body thrust, before bows and arrows were invented barely 10,000 years ago. This contact made them heedful of details like hoof structure, antler configuration, and the changing color and texture between the summer and winter coats of bison. They were clever: A pimple in the calcite becomes a horse’s eye; a round depression in the rock’s surface serves as a bovine belly. Yet like our own “schools” of art, they had a conformity of style – for example, like thickly outlining silhouettes - and their own techniques for creating perspective or depth of field using superimposition of images or color grading.

I like to imagine my artist ancestor roving up to 25 miles from Lascaux to gather his crude pigments in quarries and outcrops; then grinding, washing and purifying the minerals; and experimenting with turning them into paint by mixing them with every available medium -- fat, blood, water, bone marrow; making brushes out of animal hair, feathers or vegetable fibers, and sponges from skin pouches filled with pigment-soaked plants and hair, pouches that were punctured to let the color ooze out for dabbing.

More than two million years ago mankind’s evolutionary path separated from its purely animal origins, which is why today we wave to our closest cousins thru zoo bars. Yet we share a complex common history with the entire animal kingdom that these earliest artists felt compelled to express. That we still hunt, and still create images of the hunt, speaks of a timeless continuity between the artist, the hunt, and the beast. Unfortunately, our sporting art suffers from the loss of that profound contact between hunter and prey, resulting in works that fall short of great art.

We are fortunate that the spirit and vision of the first sporting art reaches us across the human eternity during which it remained hidden from view. These sacred figures – the roaring, antler-bashing stags in rut in the prehistoric autumn night - call out to us, still. Standing in our century, in the packed aisles of the latest wildlife art show, there is only silence.



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