Cave Painting



Cave Painting
Cave Painting
and a little bit of contemporary Aboriginal art
The exploration of cave painting is full of mysteries. New discoveries continue to be made: consider that
Lascaux was found in 1940, and Chauvet Cave, home to what are at this point the oldest known cave paintings,
came to light quite recently, in 1994. Evolving methods and techniques allow archaeologists and others to
derive new information from past discoveries. And scholars propose and dispute various theories to account for
the art. Given that this art was created before the time of written records, it seems unlikely that we will ever
definitively “solve” the many problems posed by the existence, the nature, and the history of these sophisticated
paintings made in tremendously difficult circumstances, often in remote recesses of deep and often dangerous
Lascaux: Entrance to the Axial Gallery
Lascaux: Head & Neck of Second Auroch
Lascaux: The Great Black Bull
Lascaux: from Hall of Bulls
Entrance to Lascaux nine days after its discovery in 1940 (The two teenage boys were among the four boys who actually discovered
the cave. The man wearing a beret, at the right, is Henri Breuil, the most significant early “expert” in cave art.)
Some Questions
When was cave painting discovered? The answer is not simple. It’s clear that at least a couple of caves, and
some of the art in them, were found, apparently more or less accidentally, in past centuries, but these instances
of discovery seem to have been rather rare. And it seems that little was made of such discoveries. There isn’t
any evidence that those who discovered cave art believed the works to be particularly ancient. In some cases, it
was thought that perhaps Roman soldiers had left marks behind. A number of developments through the era of
the Enlightenment and into the 19th and 20th centuries probably contributed to a readiness for truly discovering
this as the art of prehistoric people. For example, without the weakening of traditional Christian belief in literal
“creation” doctrine (with the assertion that, given the creation described in the Bible, nothing could be older
than 6,000 years), the field of archaeology would have faced even stiffer opposition than it did.
Even with the rise of the sciences of geology and archaeology and fairly widespread acceptance of much greater
antiquity than previously imagined, the first people who discovered and tried to promote the idea of cave art —
art made by prehistoric humans — were often ridiculed and derided, sometimes accused of fabricating the
evidence. This was the sad fate of Don Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, who discovered the paintings of Altamira
on his estate, in Spain. He spent years defending the authenticity of his finds, only to die without yet having
been vindicated. Some detractors accused de Sautuola of hiring an artist to paint the caves.
De Sautuoloa’s discovery was inspired, to a great extent, by an exhibit of prehistoric artifacts that he saw at the
World Exposition held in Paris in 1878. He realized that he had seen similar objects on his own land: the
exposition helped him to see the potential significance of such objects, giving him a sense of context and
meaning for them. The triggering of De Sautuoloa’s interest and insight by the exhibition of of artifacts
parallels the manner in which the French painter (and sculptor and printmaker) Paul Gauguin was inspired by
objects and artifacts he saw on exhibit in Paris. In the case of Gauguin, the artworks were from Polynesian
islands, and helped to trigger the artist’s interest in Tahitian and other Polynesian cultures.
When were cave paintings created? The best estimate, currently, seems to be: roughly, between 32,000 and
12,000 years ago. One of the fairly new techniques of science, radiocarbon dating (which was first used around
1940, but which has been refined in various ways since then), has allowed relatively confident dating of many
sorts of artifacts. It is an especially trustworthy technique when applied, for example, to many of the drawings
in caves made with charcoal (understandable, considering that charcoal is essentially carbon!). Gregory Curtis,
in his recent book The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists, notes that the
paintings – along with other cave art, such as engravings in walls often found along with the paintings, as well
as small sculptures – are very consistent over the incredible span of twenty thousand years. This fact, supported
by other archaeological evidence, strongly suggests that the culture that produced this art was incredibly stable
and unchanging. Given the pace of change in our own time, such a high degree of stability might be hard for us
to imagine or comprehend. Since we will be considering the roles and motivations of artists at various moments
in “Western” civilization, it is worth pondering, if only briefly for now, the existence of prehistoric artists who
were, apparently, motivated by factors other than the desire to make something different and “new.” It might
also be worthwhile for us to ask ourselves whether, in spite of the seeming-incessant pace of change nowadays,
there are certain aspects of our own culture that remain relatively constant, perhaps, in a sense, below the
surface hubbub.
Gregory Curtis asks, in The Cave Painters, a question that we have perhaps implied: “How is it that they
[cave paintings] could be locked away in caves, unknown or misunderstood, for eons and yet, once
discovered, fit naturally in the Western cultural tradition?” Picasso’s reported response to cave art, that the
cave painters had already “done it all,” is in line with Curtis’s assessment, that the cave painters stand at the
beginning of a tradition we still recognize. In fact, Picasso asserts, the beginning of the tradition might also
have been its culmination! (So much for “progress”!? . . .)
Points of consistency
Let’s note some of the points of consistency that Curtis, along with others, have discovered in the long-lived
tradition of cave painting:
- Cave art includes both representations and symbols (or abstract marks). See example below:
Lascaux – scene of man and bison from the shaft (or “pit”)
- The vast majority of cave painting consists of representations of animals. There are very few depictions of
human beings in caves, and the few that exist are very schematic (cartoon-like, somewhat on the order of stick
figures) than the often highly detailed and realistic depictions of animals. It is notable that other Paleolithic art,
including paintings made in shallow shelters, as in cliffs, and including also mobile art (including painted and
carved rocks and the like) shows a very different pattern. In such art, humans are often depicted realistically,
for example. This strongly suggests that the cave painters had a quite definite rule in mind that led them not to
include such realistic depictions of humans in the cave paintings. (Seeing that members of a culture are capable
of doing something, such as rendering humans in a “realistic” manner, yet choose to exercise this skill only
under certain circumstances, should perhaps give us greater empathy and respect for the “cave artists” and their
entire culture. The fact of choice, our own ability to make aesthetic choices (as well as other types of choice,
such as moral), forms a large part of our self-image as humans.)
- The animals are shown with no indications of landscape: there is no ground, no sky. The animals float. And,
very often, they are superimposed one upon another.
Font-de-Gaume – mammoth “inside” bison
- Many scholars note the mastery of perspective. This refers to the way individual animals are drawn, as if seen
from particular vantage points. What the cave painters did not do was to make clear (at least to modern
viewers) which animals might be closer to us, which further away. (At least one scholar believed that animals
depicted as smaller were meant to be “read” as being more distant. However, others have interpreted one
animal being visually “inside” another as meaning something quite different.) It has become clear to scholars
that the cave painters sometimes had particular vantage points in mind for the optimal viewing of their
compositions. This relates to their use of perspective as applied to the animals (for which we should use the
term “foreshortening”). Compare the two photographs shown below, which are of the same bull from the Hall
of Bulls in Lascaux:
Lascaux – Fourth Bull in Hall of Bulls from two different viewing positions
The “undistorted” view is what one sees from the center of this hall, not what one sees when relatively close to
the painting. This suggests that the artists intended the viewer to see the work from this central location.
- Quite often, the cave painters make use of features of the walls and ceilings of the caves, using seams, cracks,
bumps, and other such ins and outs to accentuate the outlines and forms of the animals they paint.
- There are patterns, apparent through comparison of various caves and their art, to the way different kinds of
images and paintings are distributed. For example, chambers that are relatively accessible were often
apparently used for “practice”: one can find walls filled with overlaid layers of engraving by numerous
different artists. Likewise, the deepest and most hidden chambers often house the largest, most ambitious, and
most accomplished paintings. In some cases, scholars feel that a very small group of painters worked on some
of these remote chambers.
- Certain animals are depicted more frequently than others, and while the precise distribution varies from cave
to cave, patterns of relative frequency hold widely true. Notably, horses and bison are the two animals most
often depicted, and some scholars feel that this pairing holds great significance.
- Abstract patterns, often consisting of dots, tend to occur in conjunction with entrances to significant chambers,
and also coincide with figures of horses. See the following example:
Chauvet - panel of red dots - entrance to alcove of yellow horses
Some of these points suggest a more overarching idea: that the cave painters were not just randomly finding
convenient spots and painting anything they liked there. Rather, many scholars would now suggest that the best
way to analyze cave art is to see entire cave complexes (with their often multiple chambers) as complete and
well-thought-out compositions, compositions that can (and perhaps should) be analyzed just as we would
analyze a novel or some other complex aesthetic creation of contemporary times. To accept such a hypothesis
might also be to accept quite a number of assumptions about the degree to which the Cro-Magnon people
(physiologically more or less identical to modern humans) who created this art were capable of complex and
coordinated group activity.
Max Raphael was an art historian who took up the study of cave paintings mid-career, and brought his training
to bear in a way that was new to the study of cave art. Art historians generally begin their analyses of works
with the assumption that they are dealing with “whole” things, with artifacts that have been constructed
carefully and thoughtfully as systems of meaning, in which the form and meaning of each part (detail) has a
place: everything counts. Art historians look for patterns and for order. The cave paintings had traditionally
been studied by archaeologists, who made different assumptions and looked at what they saw with different
preconceptions in mind. One example of Max Raphael’s influence can be inferred from the following diagram
made by him:
Altamira ceiling panel analyzed by Max Raphael
In paying attention to the complex and overwhelming collection of animals on the (uncomfortably low!) ceiling
of Altamira, Raphael noticed patterns controlling how these animals were placed and oriented. In a nutshell
(see the rectangle at lower left, where he visually summarizes his findings), he perceives that the animals on the
left are oriented diagonally; those near the center are more horizontal; those at right are vertical. (You might
wonder that he seems to ignore the bison at the upper right.) Such a pattern might seem obvious to us from his
diagram, but no one had noticed it before. This is likely because no one had thought to look for such patterns
before, as they had not been thinking of cave paintings in terms of large complex wholes consisting of many
More recently, others have done extraordinarily painstaking and clever work to establish the order in which
certain figures were painted. By doing so, they feel that they have established, in some instances, the fact of
pre-planning of compositions. One example is the following panel of four horses from Chauvet:
Chauvet Cave – panel of four horses
Below is an example of diagrams made by current researchers to clarify the sequence in which certain panels in
a chamber at Lascaux were created. Such work presupposes that we can learn about the meaning of the work,
and about the artists themselves, by more fully understanding the process of creation and composition. The key
question here concerns the degree of previsualization and planning involved.
Lascaux – four stages in the creation of the frieze in the axial gallery
The science and art of this sort of detective work is complex. One component of the undertaking is careful
analysis of the panel surfaces to determine which marks were laid down first. Some wall and ceiling surfaces
were scraped by the cave painters in order to create a more suitable “ground” for painting. Here is an example
of such an instance:
Chuavet – surface scraped to prepare for painting of rhinoceros (lighter surface at right)
In the hundred-plus years since the modern “discovery” of prehistoric cave painting, several theories have been
suggested to “explain” cave art. Briefly, these include the following:
- art for art’s sake: One assumes that Cro-Magnon’s had, as we modern humans seem to, an innate drive to
create, to make beautiful things, to represent what they saw, to make symbols, and perhaps (and maybe this is a
corollary to the “art for art’s sake” premise) to strive for immortality by making things that would last a very
long time
- hunting and sympathetic magic: This line of thought, which was quite influential through much of the 20th
century, suggests that cave painting was a sort of ritual activity intended to help insure success in hunting
Challenging this theory are observations that the vast majority of animals depicted in cave art are not, in fact,
animals that were hunted and eaten by the Cro-Magnons. Rather, they mostly hunted reindeer, which are a
relatively rare subject of their art. Further undermining this theory is the relative lack of hunting scenes in cave
art. Many marks originally thought to be arrows appear more ambiguous when perceived by scholars who don’t
have this “hunting” theory foremost in their minds. A hunting scene such as the following is actually quite
uncommon in cave art:
Cavalls Shelter, Vallotorta (Valencia, Spain) - Deer-hunting scene
- shamanism: Proponents of the shaman theory suggest that we gain insight into cave art by imagining that its
creators were shamans (healers and seers, believed by members of the culture to have access to a spirit realm)
analogous to shamans found in contemporary “primitive” (!) societies. Some scholars, including Jean Clottes,
believe that certain figures found in cave paintings, part human and part animal, are representations of shamans,
who often “impersonated” animals. [Note: There has been quite a lot of interesting work recently in a number
of fields relating to the idea that, as the title of a recent book by Temple Grandin phrases it, “animals make us
human.” Humans’ attempts to name and categorize animals may have been an important impetus to our
intellectual development, some scholars have suggested. Another scholar has suggested that the need of early
(developing) humans to point out dangerous snakes to each other, and the linking of physical gesture, peripheral
vision, and vocalization was a crucial step in the development of some defining “human” abilities. The larger
point is that humans’ relationships with other animals is coming in for more and more scrutiny lately, and this
relates to some key aspects of shamanism, who can be seen as intermediaries between the human and the
animal.] Shamanism is associated with hallucinogenic states, possibly induced by dance and music, not to
mention the sensory and oxygen deprivation experienced in many of the caves (some of which have
dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide). (Plant sources of hallucinogenic substances are not thought to have
been available in the Ice Age landscape of the Cro-Mangons.) This line of thought has come in for quite a bit of
strong criticism, but also has attracted many adherents.
It’s interesting that some researchers have brought Aborigines (native Australians) to various cave sites to
experience Paleolithic cave art in order to elicit their insights. The Aborigines reportedly felt it was clear that
those who created the art had intended to contact some sort of “beyond.” The end of the caves, according to
the line of thinking suggested by some “shaman” theorists, represented to the cave artists the end of “our world”
and the boundary of the other. One vivid description of how the artists might have imagined bridging this gap
between worlds has to do with the making of hand prints. By placing their hands on the cave walls and blowing
pigment through a straw, the artists ended up making stencil-style representations of their hands. But the most
significant experience might occur not after the act of creation, but during it: with their hands still covered by
the pigment that also colored the nearby area of the wall, they would have essentially disappeared into the wall.
That is, part of their own bodies would have entered the beyond, if only momentarily. (Please note that the
hand prints shown below are not examples of this stencil method!)
Chauvet – handprints, dots, felines
- gender signification: Other scholars, notably Annette Laming-Emperaire and André Leroi-Gourhan, have
suggested, based on the carefully accumulated statistical analysis of how various animals and signs are
distributed in various caves, that a complex belief system (religious?) involving the binary opposition of male
and female, with “male signs” being found near horses and “female signs” being found near bison. Gregory
Curtis, after summarizing “What he [Leroi Gourhan] had discovered was a repeated pattern in each cave
whereby male signs and horses played one role and female signs and bison played another,” quotes LeroiGourhan as follows: “I found myself in the end confronted with a system of unexpected complexity — the
skeleton of a religious thought, as impervious to my understanding, moreover, as a comparative study of the
iconograpy of sixty cathedrals would be to an archaeologist from Mars.” In other words, he believed he found
indications that cave paintings was religious in nature, but was nowhere near understanding much, if anything,
about that religion.
One might see the placement of a bear skull, apparently quite carefully and deliberately by a Cro-Magnon, on a
rock that had fallen from the ceiling of a chamber in Chauvet Cave, as support for the position that this was, in
some way, a “religious” culture with a deep sense of ritual and mystery.
Chauvet: Skull Chamber, with bear skull place on rock (as if on an altar?)
Contemporary Aboriginal Art: A Proposed Parallel
In part because some scholars, including Jean Clottes (who has been the contemporary curator/overseer of cave
art sites in France), have suggested the analogy between Paleolithic cave artists and contemporary “tribal”
peoples whose culture is quite ancient, and because this analogical method is controversial, it makes sense to
take at least a bit of a look at Aboriginal art.
The Aborigines of Australia have undergone a history parallel to that of Native Americans in North America,
being dispossessed of their land and relegated to second class (far worse, actually!) citizenship. Two widely
held, and related, assumptions of white settlers, in both cases, was the superiority of their own culture, and the
inevitability of the spread of Anglo-Saxon European values and ways. In both cases, the differences between
the indigenous people and the newcomers was incredibly stark. And in both cases, one crucial are of difference
concerned the relationship of people to the land.
Contemporary Aboriginal art is full of paradoxes and contradictions. The most fundamental paradox is that this
is art which would not exist without the intervention of white people, non-Aborigines. Several decades ago, in
the 1960s and 1970s, a number of whites began introducing contemporary art materials, such as canvas and
acrylic paints, to Aborigines. Aboriginal artists emerged who used these materials in new and exciting ways,
creating works that looked unlike anything seen in Western culture, but also unlike traditional Aboriginal art.
The market for this work consisted primarily of Westerners. It’s important to know a little of this background if
only to realize that it may not be simple – or perhaps even possible – to get an “untarnished” or “pure” vision of
an indigenous culture, given the pervasive (one might say insidious) nature of contact and intervention. From
another viewpoint, though, these paintings are an incredibly intriguing point of contact; they suggest that we
might at least be capable of glimpsing and getting great insight from a world view very different from our own.
And, at least for some, the inherent beauty of many of these contemporary Aboriginal paintings is sufficient. It
can be a harder matter to decide what one should make of this beauty. Is it possible to appreciate these works
simply as pleasing patterns and colors? The knowledge that the paintings actually represent tribal and personal
knowledge, that they refer to and in some ways map the relationship of the people to the land, referring to
specific mythic/historical events, moments, and places, changes our perception of the paintings. But it seems
unlikely that “outsiders” such as we seem to be will ever get any real deep understanding of the culture and life
of the Aborigines. Are we up against a frustration such as Leroi-Gourhan described: sensing a belief system,
but being overwhelmed by our great distance from any true understanding of it? Even if this is the case, it
might be wise to avoid believing that, since we cannot understand Aboriginal culture and we cannot understand
Paleolithic culture, those two cultures must be, in some profound way, alike.
Peter Skipper: Jila Japingka 1987
Judy Nampijinpa Granites: Water Dreaming at Mikanji 1986

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