Wednesday, June 8, 2011

In the cave of forgotten dreams

Chauvet Caves:  Four horses with fighting rhinos

Acting on an enthusiastic recommendation from Francesca Rosa I went with Bruce Boone to see the excellent Werner Herzog film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a remarkable excursion through the Chauvet Caves in Southern France, which contain the oldest pictures in human history. The 3-D presentation was flawless and in fact completely necessary to show how the rock art images merged plastically into the shifting planes of the limestone walls of the cave. Herzog also left plenty of time for the viewer to simply gaze at the works themselves without acoustic intervention, returning to the same images from time to time seen from different perspectives.

The film was in every sense of the word an anabasis into the collective unconscious of humankind, down to the ancient-most layer of our own species-memory that we can access. Why did these cave artists portray animals and not trees and flowers, or geographical features like mountains and rivers, or other humans? Were they interested only in imaging the food supply in motion, or did they understand themselves as part of an animal spirit-world, and the creatures as fellow beings in the commonly-shared ancestral environment?

Assuming that the human population in the Upper Paleolithic in Europe was tiny, and the variety and number of animals running around as dense apparently as on the plains of Africa, the engagement with them must have been extremely intense. Perhaps the fact that the animals are almost always pictured in profile from their sides, in the way we would photograph grazing animals today, demonstrates the angle at which they were also able to be hunted—you don’t see their faces shown head-on, which would permit you to make eye-contact and get personal with them.

A brief excursus was made into the well-known, chubby Paleolithic female figures categorized as “Venuses” and given the common interpretation that these symbolize fecundity. I remain skeptical, remembering that Hawaiian and Polynesian royalty were once esteemed according to their body-weight, and that obesity functioned socially as a Schönheitsideal. Perhaps when food is scarce or difficult to obtain, body fat becomes desirable.


More pictures of the Chauvet caves at the Bradford Foundation website

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