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Drawing on the wall in cave of Chauvet

Drawing on the wall in cave of Chauvet

Yesterday I saw Werner Herzog’s new film Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross Herzog described his lifelong obsession with cave paintings dating back to his childhood days, when he passed a bookshop displaying a book on cave painting in the window. He stared at the book in the shop window for a long time, taking in the cover illustration, imagining what was inside the book. He saved up his pocket money for weeks until he was able to buy the book and devour its contents.

This is not a Discovery Channel kind of movie, but rather an artful, deeply felt document of Herzog’s chance-of-a-lifetime to enter the cave at Chauvet, in southern France, with a small film crew. The cave was discovered in December 1994 by three explorers who detected small movements of air escaping from a crevice on a wooded hillside overlooking the Pont d’arc natural bridge which spans the Ardeche River. They carefully removed enough rubble from the rockslide that had buried the cave’s entrance some twenty thousand years ago to gain entrance.

Inside the hill, the explorers found a beautiful cave with sparkling stalactites and stalagmites. But it was in the deeper reaches of the cavern that they found a unique treasure: passageways and rooms whose walls were filled with exquisite paintings of now-extinct animals. The first explorer spying them cried, “They have been here!” The paintings appeared so fresh that early researchers wondered if they were fakes; only after discovering the layer of calcium deposits over some of the paintings did it become clear that they were painted some 30,000 years ago. The rockslide that sealed the cave had protected its contents for twenty millennia.

And the paintings! Executed in shades of black, brown, and rusty red, the animals painted on the undulating cave walls appear alive, as if the unknown painters captured them in a frame of a movie. Herzog’s film technique, panning over the images as they are lit by flickering light approximating the torchlight by which they were painted, makes the animals appear to breathe and move.

We will never know exactly what this cave and its paintings meant to the people who created and first viewed the images. While there are no paintings of cave bears on the walls, numerous skulls of the bears remain in the cave, including one that appears to be strategically placed on a large altar-like block of stone. Bones of many other animals also lie in the cave. In the rear of the cave is the footprint of an eight-year-old child; and next to it is the paw print of a wolf. Were they contemporaneous, or separated by thousands of years of time, Herzog wonders, in his narration. Most enigmatic to me is the singular image of a human hand outlined in red, like the spray-painted signature of a graffiti artist.

Herzog’s reverent vision of the cave at Chauvet lavishes its gaze on the images of the animals. They crowd together on the irregular walls of the cave, heads lifted as if surprised by a National Geographic photographer at an African waterhole. Each animal is different, lovingly rendered in perspective with dark charcoal outlines, chiaroscuro shading, and etching. The paintings make effective use of the bumps and hollows on the cave wall to add surprising vitality and a sense of movement.

The animals represented on the cave walls are mostly all now extinct, or survive in greatly limited range. The paintings portray great bison, with powerful shoulders and shaggy coats; aurochs, the enormous ancestors of modern cattle; early ibex with curving horns; stags, horses, and lions. I didn’t realize until I checked Wikipedia that lions once ranged widely across Europe, until 10,000 years ago.

By the end of the film, Herzog has so hypnotically captivated this viewer that the images painted on the walls of this lost cave seem to have come to life. The creatures breathe and stamp as they gather themselves to feed or run or fight. These ancient mammals seem healthy, vibrant, and powerful, thriving in the (mostly) unpopulated Eden of early modern Europe. Their bright eyes reach over the millennia and remind me of the 1200 generations of unwritten human history since these images were created.

My favorite paintings are the group portrait of four early horses whose shaggy coats and smallish heads and ears reveal both their relation to modern horses and their wild differentness. They seem alert, relaxed, calm. Their delicately rendered eyes convey a pristine animal intelligence and a zest for life. The lowest horse, last drawn, is the most developed of the images.

In a fascinating New Yorker article, author Judith Thurman describes this animal:

“This fourth horse was produced using a complex technique: the main lines were drawn with charcoal; the infill, colored sepia and brown, is a mixture of charcoal and clay spread with the finger. A series of fine engravings perfectly follow the profile. With energetic and precise movements, the significant details are indicated (nostril, open mouth). A final charcoal line, dark black, was placed just at the corner of the lips and gives this head an expression of astonishment or surprise.”

In the film, Herzog here interrupts the sequence of images within the cave to show his interview with a scientist who demonstrated a spear-throwing apparatus used by early man to aid in his hunting. The throwing stick adds torque to the thrower’s arm, increasing the power and accuracy of his throw. The scientist threw a long bone-tipped spear some fifty yards, straight as the proverbial arrow, between two rows in a vineyard.

That’s when it came home to me: the magnificent and beautiful portraits of the animals in the cave were created by the people who hunted and killed them, ultimately driving them to extinction. Tim Flannery, in his excellent book The Eternal Frontier, makes a convincing case that all the large fauna who went extinct in the Paleolithic era did so as the result of human hunting, rather than climate change or some other variable.

It’s easy to see from the cave paintings that the artists felt reverence, perhaps even love, for the creatures whose flesh, bones and hides sustained them. There is a sense of awe in the naturalistic rendering on the cave walls of these animals who were the successful end products of millions of years of evolution.

And isn’t this so profoundly our human dilemma — that we seem to kill what we love, and depend upon? We love the Earth, our home – and we are busily killing its wildlife, poisoning its atmosphere, and depleting its resources.

We speak of endangered species and place certain animals on the Endangered Species list, but isn’t it now the case that ALL species are endangered? Including our own?

During the film, I couldn’t put my finger on the strong emotion I felt as the images of the animals on the walls of the Chauvet cave flickered before me. At the end, it came to me: sadness.

Perhaps in another post I’ll offer a more optimistic view of where we stand on our task of Saving The Earth. But for now, the images of these beautiful lost animals are still lingering inside my cranium.

See the movie…

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