Category Archives: prehistoric art

Visiting Lascaux IV


“Lascaux IV”by Alexandre Dolique is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


As I looked up at an 18 metre painted ceiling known as the Diverticule axial, I was, for the first time not merely intrigued by prehistoric art, but moved by it. The weird thing is, I was not in a prehistoric cave. I was in a two-year old replica.

Today I visited Lascaux IV. While a mere 200 scientists get permission to visit the original each year, Lascaux IV is a resource for the rest of us. It is extensive, atmospheric, and I’m told accurate to within a 16thof a millimetre. Really!?

It would be hard to conceive of a more exhaustive visitor centre. Our tour lasted for more than an hour; the guide was knowledgeable and personable; the replica caverns were stunning; there was no shortage of museological add ons (films, sound effects, multi-media theatre, 3D cinema, VR lab, interactive gallery of ‘primitive’ modern art, and a temporary exhibition space, gift shops for both grown ups and children.)

The Vézère Valley is baking today: 40 degrees according to my phone. But I found it really instructive to be told to think of the region as having once been more akin to Lapland or Greenland. Today it is forested. Then it was tundra. Once we were nomads. Now we are tourists.

Many on the tour are driving round the region seeing more caves, including those where you can see original artwork. I on the other hand will be visiting two more caves here at Lascaux: the first replica (Lascaux II) and an undecorated neighbour, Grand Roc. I must remind myself: it’s all about the replicas. I will try not to well up again, at either.

By the way, the image is from the Atelier section of the visit. Photography underground is prohibited, which is in itself interesting. But this was the passage which gets compared to the Sistine Chapel. It’s more cheerful than Michelangelo, at least the colours are brighter. I look forward to comparing the lighting at Lascaux II.

The faux pas of primitivism


“Lascaux 170”by Ma Boîte à Image is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In post war France, prehistoric art got people talking. At least it got intellectuals talking, but this being France we can imagine that the zone of interest was widespread. The basis for this post, about primitivism in the years following the Second World War, is an important paper by Douglas Smith called Beyond the Cave.

While many in France thought they’d found the origins of humanity, three figures called into question the simplicity of that conclusion: Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot and René Char. Smith quotes poet Char on the dubious quest for orgins: “Cette espérance de retour est la pire perversion de la culture occidentale, sa plus folle aberration.” (This hope of going back is the worst perversion of western culture, its maddest aberration.) But all three writers complicate the notion of origins. They assert, in various ways, with critical subtlety, that the works at Lascaux are both origins and originary non-origins. Bear with it.

Smith concludes that Lascaux was indeed an ‘impossible origin’, given the efforts of the parties who wanted to find the descendants of the modernist White Cube in the Hall of the Bulls. This was the general idea behind the second wave of primitivism in French culture in the 1940s and 1950s. In the first wave, modern artists looked to exotic cultures for the origins of modernism. But now, figures like artist Jean Dubuffet, photographer Brassaï, and architect Le Corbusier were taking inspiration from the indigenous primitivism of prehistoric art, as if the first artists were already modern without realising it.

Writer, politician and former Resistance fighter, Andre Malraux claimed that the caves at Montignac were used as an arms cache for his comrades in arms. Lascaux was thought to be a place of anachronistic goodness. This was to ascribe a spurious innocence to prehistoric art, in the face of the guilt which humanity shares in the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

A neanderthal in agnès b.

Last week I visited the Neandertal exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. The show was instructive and lively. And reasonably busy, for a Friday morning. There is clearly public interest in our nearest prehistorical kindred. Just why this should be, I’ll hazard a guess at the end of this post.

There wasn’t too much about parietal art. But I did learn plenty which cast a new light on the eras in which Lascaux, Chauvet and Altamira were created. Perhaps you already knew, but Neanderthals were the first hominid species to bury their dead. Neanderthals and homo sapien interbred and as a result most of us have a slice of their DNA. And given that, it is a disturbing fact that our evolutionary cousins practiced cannibalism.

At the end of the show we were met by this young woman, the work of French sculptor Elisabeth Daynès. She has the physique of a neanderthal, but the gaze and the expression of a contemporary. More confusing still, she’s dressed in a Parisienne fashion brand, agnès b. In her left hand is a magazine in which she graces the front cover. She’s so smart and upbeat, one is quickly drawn to her. But then since she also looks something less than fully human, one becomes confused and slightly spooked.

There are any number of neanderthal mannequins in museums around the world. Some of them may be made by Daynès, since that is her artistic focus. But the neanderthals who take their place in your average archaeology display are beetle-browed savages; a world away. But his cave person walks among us, the most stylish individual in sight. This sculptor highlights our common ground. Then leaves it to you to sense your radical difference from this model.

So how can a major museum sustain a major show on a topic like this? Well, for a start there is a greater interest in prehistory in France. The country has much of the world’s most celebrated cave art. And, I saw for myself that Bookshop Gilbert Joseph, on the Boulevard Saint-Michel, boasts an entire section given over to the Stone Age. But perhaps more than anything, Neandertal fascinates because its subjects are extinct. They are as tragic as dodos, and perhaps more instructive. Hard to imagine a future in which we feature in a museum display, but surely we must hope there is one.

Neandertal is at the Musée de l’Homme until 7 January 2019.

L’abbé Breuil and Bisonte cigarettes

Henri Breuil (1877-1961) has been called the father of prehistory. Little known in the UK, he should really take a place alongside Freud, Darwin and Marx as one of the scientists who sent shockwaves through 20th century thought; he changed the way we see our place in the world for good.

Breuil was a cleric, a scientist, and an artist. His copies of prehistoric parietal art gave the public its first glimpse of subterranean masterpieces aged between 20,000 and 40,000 years, He is reputed to have spent 800 days underground, at sites like Lascaux and Altamira. And he squared the facts of prehistoric life with his Catholic faith, just as he put his gifts as an artist or copyist at the service of his scientific mind.

Some work was done on the back of a proverbial fag packet. Having spent this week at the archive of the Muséum nationale d’Histoire naturelle, I come away with an uneasy sense that the first draft of prehistory was written on miscellaneous scraps of paper. Breuil threw away nothing and wrote, and drew, on whatever came to hand. But whereas his subjects reached for bone, antler, and rock face, Breuil was happy with recycled calendar pages and wine lists. From time to time, at least.

Breuil even writes on a literal fag packet (see picture): “Ce qu’on a fait de mon bison d’Altamira!”. In some other words, Zut alors! Look what they’ve done to my Altamira bison! This iconic image, from the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art in Northern Spain, echoes one of Breuil’s own copies. In his lifetime he published some 600 drawings, watercolours, pastels or oils. Plenty of material to inspire a graphic designer. It can be clearly seen that the newfound facts about man’s long history were marketable enough to sell a product with the clear potential to shorten your future.

Breuil was, by all accounts, a chain smoker. But it is hard to know what he felt about this instance of cultural theft. At least, the cigarette packet, as seen in box BR-7, demonstrates that knowledge percolates out of the academy by unexpected means. And that cave painting, a matter of national pride in Spain upon the discovery of Altamira, is no less likely a marketing hook than the 14m high roadside bull silhouettes which have, since 1957, advertised Sherry in Spain. But this love of the bovine goes way back.

If this has reminded you of any other marketable reproductions of cave art, please send them through to me at mark [at] criticsimsim [dot] com.

Museo de Altamira

Read just a little of the literature about cave art and you’ll come across a report of some or other high-minded archaeologist bursting into tears at the sight of it.

But this was never going to happen at the Museo de Altamira. The caves are closed to the public. Instead visitors are invited into a less moving replica, a neocave.

It is still an experience. There is a holographic Paleolithic family, which the original presumably lacks. And there is plenty of supporting information to read.

What is most striking about the ceiling covered in paintings, the Techo de Polícromos, is quite how much the prehistoric artists worked with the contours of the rock.

This may be one of the first things you hear about cave painting, but I wasn’t prepared for quite how bulbous these 18,500 and 14,500 year old bison really are.

Although prevailing wisdom suggests a ritual purpose for these works, it is difficult not to detect just an element of humour in these found representational forms.

But at the same time, such three dimensional work suggests frieze-like sculpture as much as painting. This is artistic synthesis or mixed media avant la lettre.

Just two colours are used in the so-called Polychrome Ceiling and painting here is done, to the millimetre, using pigments not unlike the originals.

So there is something interesting about the construction of a simulated cave just 300m from where the original, ideal forms can be found. Plato would do his nut.

You might too, if you spent too long in the gift shop. What you see in the photo above is a slab of cave painting for you to take away and put on the wall of your home.

Just why anyone would want to do this, in light of the invention of paper and canvas, is beyond me. But the souvenir cave art does offer a way in or out of Altamira.

To plan your visit to the museum in Cantabria, Spain, check out the website. It’s free on Sundays.