Plein Air Paintings Created By Torchlight & Preserved Forever

5 Sep 2011

Drawings of horses in the Chauvet Caves.
Drawings of horses in the Chauvet caves.

We recently watched the Werner Herzog film, Chauvet: Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog made the film about the prehistoric, 30,000- to 32,000 year-old cave art discovered in 1994 in the Ardeche region of France by three speleologists, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel, and Christiane Hillaire.

Chauvet discovered faint air currents emanating from a rock wall near a popular hiking trail and decided to investigate with his team. After digging away rock debris, the three discovered a shaft that led down to a large, high-ceilinged chamber decorated with glittering concretions. This chamber led to another that led to a series of rooms, some that had with prehistoric animal bones scattered on the floor.

On their way out, Brunel shone her lamp on a rocky spur hanging from the ceiling and discovered a drawing in red ochre of a small mammoth, the first of hundreds of cave paintings and engravings they would find there. It was soon established beyond a shadow of doubt that the cave, which was to become known as Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc, contained the oldest cave art ever found.

Hyena paintings, thought to be 20,000 years old, in the Chauvet caves.
Hyena paintings, thought to be 20,000 years old, in the Chauvet caves.
There are many surprising, unique and outstanding aspects to the art found in Chauvet. The quality, quantity, and condition of the artwork on the walls is spectacular. Many of the paintings appear to have been made only after the walls were scraped clean of the mineral concretions on them, thus making a smoother and lighter "canvas" on which to work. Some were etched or incised around their outlines, giving them a three-dimensional effect in the wavering torchlight that they would have originally been seen under.

Charcoal was used not only to draw the outlines of the animals, but in some cases was used very sensitively and skillfully to shade the bodies to convey turning form. But it is the types of animals depicted that truly stand out-some species on the walls of the caves have rarely been or sometimes never been found in Paleolithic cave art before, which makes the cave paintings our first glimpses of some of the prehistoric predators that roamed the Aurignacian hills and valleys alongside early man. Cave lions, cave bears, a spotted leopard, and cave hyenas appear alongside 11 other more familiar species in the hundreds of paintings present.

While no one can say why the Aurignacian people chose to put so much effort into making these paintings deep in a pitch-black cave, it is interesting to speculate, from the artist's standpoint. The cave paintings are a level of magnitude beyond the quick gestural drawings that could have been drawn in the dirt outside the cave, which would have eventually been washed away and obliterated. The latter could have been scrawls in the dirt to quickly communicate information or directional schematics of the animal herds the tribesmen were hunting, or as warnings of the movements of dangerous animals..

Because of where they were painted, it is clear that the cave drawings were meant to last longer than such hunting sketches: to be protected and made more or less permanent. The paintings are not gestural, but detailed and lifelike. It was dangerous to go deep into these caves, and probably would have required a torch-bearer to light the work for the painter. This was an important activity within the culture of the paleolithic people, but just what purpose it served we can only speculate. But these certainly were the first plein air paintings our evolutionary ancestors created. Read more about other ancestral plein air painters and their work at Lascaux.

For more in-depth articles about art and painting, please visit us at The Artist's Road.

--John and Ann





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