Thursday, October 10, 2013

Cro-Magnon cave art

Ever since I was little and read about the French schoolboys who discovered the cave paintings at Lascaux, I've wanted to see this art. Today we visited two amazing caves, Lascaux II and Grotte de Font-de-gaume. Both are in the Vezere valley, also known as the Valley of Mankind, because of the number of prehistoric sites found there.

It 's a beautiful valley with a lovely microclimate somewhat like Monterrey, California, with a broad river running through areas of massive limestone cliffs. It is in the caves in these cliffs that prehistoric peoples did the paintings. People have lived in the valley going back 400,000 years. Both the Neanderthal and the Cro-Magnon lived here (at overlapping times), but the paintings, sculptures and engravings that have been discovered date from 14,000 to 40,000 years and were done by Cro-Magnon people. The art work is stunningly sophisticated and expressive.  I've seen photos of the paintings but it's nothing like standing in front of the or beneath them on the cave walls and ceilings.

The first cave we visited, Lascaux II, is a life sized replica of the cave those boys discovered in 1940. The original caves were filled with marvellously preserved lifesized paintings of animals. In the years that followed the paintings suffered damage from mould, fungus and calcite, caused by the millions of visitors and was closed to the public in 1963. Twenty years later they opened Lascaux II, an exact replica of the cave down to the shape of the walls, the pigments used, and the paintings, done by teams of artists. groups of aurochs, bulls, horses and deer done with incredible skill, using the contours of the walls to create perspective and shading.

Our tour was in French so I missed a lot of details but no explanations were needed to appreciate the incredible mastery of the artists who created this.  Here 's a photo I took before realizing it wasn't allowed. I loved seeing Lascaux II but somehow knowing that it's a replica diluted the experience a bit.

The highlight for me was the visit to Grotte de Font de Gaume, the real thing, with paintings dating back 17,000 years in its narrow tunnels. Only 80 people a day are allowed in and we had to line up early in the morning to get tickets. Our group of 8 people was led by a wonderful guide who helped us discover the friezes of bison and horses that emerge out of the dark and appreciate the perspective and shading used by the ancient artists. One memorable painting of two reindeer, one licking the head of another fallen one brought tears to my eyes.This is a photo of a postcard showing a contemporary artist's rendition of the large and somewhat faded painting/engraving.

It was a long drive to get the tickets and visit two sites inone day, but I will remember this for the rest of my life.

1 comment:

  1. Another thing I'd love to see. I'm familiar with some of these sites- I know of Chauvet Cave, which is only accessible a limited time in the year, and only to scientists, because of the cultural value of the prehistoric art.


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