These lions look so full of life they might at any moment pounce on their prey. This is a small detail from the “Lion Panel”, an expansive composition featuring dozens of animals, discovered in 1994 in a cave in southeastern France. Across a huge cave wall with a niche in the center, the lions appear to be stalking herds of rhinos, mammoths and bulls. The realism is classical, the scale and energy modern, yet radiocarbon dating has proven this magnificent work is approximately thirty thousand years old! The mastery displayed here makes a mockery of the concept of “primitive” art.
It has been barely a hundred years since scientists have agreed that the paintings in certain caves are the work of artists of the paleolithic or old stone age, the end of the last glacial period, when homo sapiens coexisted with Neanderthal people and the kind of herds we associate with the African veldt roamed Europe. In 1879 the nine year old daughter of amateur Spanish archaeologist Sautuola discovered the magnificent murals of Altamira cave, but it took over twenty years before the scholarly establishment accepted the prehistoric origin of the paintings.
Since then, academics have disputed about the meaning and motivation of these works. In The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis-Williams, a scholar specializing in ancient rock art, argues that the paintings in the paleolithic caves are the product of shamanic vision quests. These are not the kind of caves some people lived in, but deep caverns requiring significant effort to penetrate. Inside these spaces there is no external light or sound. The paintings may record visions arising from ordeal and sensory deprivation. Ancient footprints found in the caves show that children accompanied adults into the caves, so the exhibition of the artwork by dim and flickering lamplight may have been a kind of initiation.
Most visual art associated with present-day hunting and gathering cultures is highly stylized, relying on abstract conventions that represent things conceptually rather than accurately following their appearance. In contrast, the paleolithic art is remarkable for its realism. Obviously those animals were not posing for the artists inside the caves, but the confident rendering of lifelike animal contours convinces me that these artists were well practiced in observational drawing. The caves may be significant not as the place of origin of art, but as the place of its preservation, as there must have been an abundance of art outside the caves that did not survive.
I’ll refrain from engaging the scholarly arguments here, and just share a few samples of visual art of the European Paleolithic that speak to me across the millennia, revealing the timeless qualities of great work. These images come from books in my personal library, and I hope the copyright holders will not mind my sharing them with you. Altamira, mentioned above, is the source of this exuberant galloping horse:
This painting has the lightness and simplicity of the loose brushwork of Asian painters grounded in calligraphy and taoism or zen.
The Cave of Trois-Frères in France is famous for a human-animal hybrid image known as “The Sorcerer“. It also has a magnificent complex herd scene with at least forty-five animals, densely overlapping, all of them individually expressed in different lifelike positions. Is the figure on the right in the detail shown below a hunter disguised in a bison’s skin, a shamanic summoner of animal spirits, or a bison god?
Here’s another detail from the same cave:
These vigorous drawings burst with vitality, conveying the power of the looming beasts and the fury of the hunt.
You may notice that I’ve chosen to show many of these works in copies made by the Abbé Breuil, one of the early 20th century’s foremost specialists in European cave art. His beautifully rendered copies clarify images that are often hard to read in photographs, painted or engraved on rough and mottled stone surfaces. It’s difficult for photographs to capture the qualities of cave art, which is not flat and not intended to be seen in harsh bright light. Many of the original paintings incorporate the bulges of the stone walls as the bulges of the animal bodies. In other places, paintings continue from walls up to vaulted ceilings, as in this image from the most famous painted cave of all, Lascaux:
Depictions of animals are far more numerous, and usually more detailed, than depictions of the human form in paleolithic art, but the human figures can be strikingly sensual:
This is just a small sampling from an incredible wealth of prehistoric masterpieces.
New note added April 21, 2010: Get a great feeling for the art in context with the navigable CGI reproduction of the art in context in the cave of Lascaux.