DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt


Womb of Art: Paleolithic Masterpieces

Detail of the Lion Panel of Chauvet Cave, France, fig. 84 from "Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave" by Chauvet, Deschamps & Hillaire

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:

Galloping Horse, original painting in red, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, fig. 130 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

This painting has the lightness and simplicity of the loose brushwork of Asian painters grounded in calligraphy and taoism or zen.

This back-biting bison carving, from Trois-Frères Cave in France could be mistaken for a Picasso:

Bison sculpture in reindeer antler, from La Madeleine, France, fig. 44 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

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?

Detail from a mural engraving at the Cave of Trois-Frères, France, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, p. 135 from "La Peinture Prehistorique: Lascaux ou la Naissance de l'Art" by Georges Bataille

Here’s another detail from the same cave:

Bison, engraving at the Cave of Trois-Frères, France, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, fig. 121a from "The Roots of Civilization" by Alexander Marshack

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:

Ceiling of the Axial Gallery, Lascaux Cave, p. 111 from "The Cave of Lascaux: The Final Photographs" by Mario Ruspoli

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:

Reclining female figures from Cave of La Madeleine, France, relief carvings above with copy drawings below, fig. 111 from "The Way of the Animal Powers" by Joseph Campbell

Those remind me of Matisse.  The carved “Venus” figurines, a selection of which are shown below, prefigure the styles of Brancusi and Gaudier-Brzeska:

Small paleolithic figurines, from left to right, vitreous rock from the Riviera, hematite from Moravia, mammoth ivory from Ukraine, and mammoth bone from Russia, figs. 121 thru 124 from "The Way of the Animal Powers" by Joseph Campbell

From a slightly later period, after the invention of the bow and arrow, we have silhouetted figures like this one, similar in style to South African rock art, but this is from Spain:

Archer with compound bow, rock painting in black from the Spanish Levant, fig. 177 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

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.


  1. Nice selection, Fred.

    A guy that I sketch with, R. Dale Guthrie, has a book out, ‘The Nature of Paleolithic Art’ that, without putting the art down or anything, basically contends that most of it was not shamanistic, -but teen-drawn graffiti. Much of the art is associated with ocher sprayed hand prints,a sort of ‘kilroy was here’ on the walls. Dale went around Alaska villages measuring children’s hands and based on his collected data, feels the prints were made by male adolescents. What are/were teen boys interested in? Girls with big boobs and shapely butts and hunting. What are the major themes of the cave art? Girls with big boobs and shapely butts and hunting!

    Just think Dale’s is an interesting take on it all…..

    Comment by Jim in Alaska — 2010/02/18 @ 12:46

  2. Jim, I’ve heard that theory before and it may apply to the handprints. Not all of the cave painting or carving shows sophisticated craftsmanship, but some of it certainly does. If it’s all a bunch of teenage graffiti, the pimply-faced punk that painted this Altamira bison is a mighty talented vandal!

    Comment by fred — 2010/02/18 @ 17:27

  3. Could be, could be….

    Comment by Jim in Alaska — 2010/02/19 @ 04:06

  4. I just came across this article, with slide show gallery, in New Scientist, about a new interpretation of the abstract markings that often accompany the figurative art in paleolithic caves: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527481.200-the-writing-on-the-cave-wall.html?full=true

    Comment by fred — 2010/02/23 @ 23:52

  5. Author Graham Hancock in his book “Supernatural” has some interesting viewpoints on paleolithic cave art, referring also to the “drug” induced shamanic experiences of early man, as theorised by one David Lewis-Williams

    Comment by Rod Glover — 2010/04/21 @ 02:31

  6. Rod, I haven’t read Graham Hancock, or R. Dale Guthrie (mentioned by Jim), though I have read David Lewis-Williams. There are a lot of conflicting speculations about the meanings and motivations behind this art. My impression is that most of those who have studied the work in detail have some valuable insights, but dueling scholars have a tendency to be overly dogmatic about asserting their own insights over others. My own viewpoint is that of an artist, and I believe some of the cave paintings are beautiful and accomplished, and can be appreciated as fine art even if we know very little about their creators.

    I recently read that the great idiosyncratic filmmaker Werner Herzog is making a 3-D documentary about the paintings in the Chauvet Cave. I can’t wait to see that! I’ve often wished the pictures we have of the cave paintings were in 3-D, as the form of the cave walls is often an integral part of the imagery.

    Are you the Rod Glover at rodglover.com?

    Comment by fred — 2010/04/21 @ 07:49

  7. G. Hancock fundamentally agrees with David Lewis-Williams, but disagrees as to the hallucinatory effects being “hard wired” into our brains, but suggests that the intake of mind altering drugs induces the ability of our brain to percieve/receive somethings which are not “hard wired”. That our brain can be retuned to another reception channel as it wear! Hancock is always well worth a read anyway in my opinion.
    I don’t know of the rodglover.com website, I am not that person, but curiosity impels me to give it a try!Sorry if I sidetracked you from your main interest of paleolithic art, but thought I would let you know about the interpretations of G. Hancock,on the cave art subject.

    Comment by Rod Glover — 2010/04/22 @ 00:25

  8. Thanks for sharing, Rod. I’m always interested in writings about paleolithic art and will look into Hancock.

    I think art practice and deep artistic experience of various kinds can retune the brain to another reception channel!

    The rodglover.com website has some really beautiful biomorphic abstract art, rather psychedelic and prehistoric.

    Welcome to Drawing Life!

    Comment by fred — 2010/04/22 @ 21:34

  9. Hi again! I am not “plugging” Hancock, but in the book of his I mentioned, there are some wondrous pictures of psychadelic paintings done by a Peruvian artist named Pablo Amaringo, of his visions whilst under the influence of the mind altering drug “ayascuaha”.G.Hancock relates these to similair visions by paleolithic man resulting in the beautiful cave paintings.

    Comment by Rod Glover — 2010/04/23 @ 00:43

  10. Sounds interesting, Rod. I’ll keep an eye out for that book.

    Comment by fred — 2010/04/23 @ 07:10

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