Underground Art
Puzzles and arguments surround the great cave paintings of France and Spain.

Reviewed by Matthew Price
Sunday, December 17, 2006


Probing the Mysteries of the World's First Artists

By Gregory Curtis

Knopf. 278 pp. $25

The work of other artists didn't often reduce Pablo Picasso to a state of utter humility, but that's exactly what happened just after World War II, when he was mucking about in a cave in southwestern France. This wasn't just any cave, however -- its walls were festooned with striking pictures of horses and bulls that date from the Ice Age, all rendered with exquisite sophistication and symbolic force. Upon exiting the cave, an awed Picasso declared, "We have learned nothing in twelve thousand years."

He wasn't kidding. The art in this cave -- called Lascaux, the Sistine Chapel of cave art -- and in many others that dot parts of France and Spain deservedly ranks with the greatest masterworks of Western art. Yet these paintings have provoked as much vexed speculation as they have wonder and awe: What was their purpose? Why are there so many pictures of animals? The painters had many colors at their disposal, but why do black and red dominate? Why are there no pictures of sky, moon or trees? What are the strange geometric signs found in many of the caves? Why are there few images of people? Just what does it all mean? Such questions have kept generations of scholars and archaeologists busy trying to find a definitive if ever elusive explanation.

In The Cave Painters, journalist Gregory Curtis provides a fine, lucid introduction to the debates -- there are plenty of intellectual imbroglios and, sorry for the pun, a few off-the-wall theories -- plus a succinct guide to the aesthetics of the paintings themselves.

To understand cave art, we must first radically adjust how exactly we define "primitive" and then throw conventional notions of artistic progress out the window. The glories of ancient Rome and Greece were but a blip compared to the great age of cave painting, which began about 32,000 years ago and lasted for roughly 20,000 years. (Considering the time frame itself requires a staggering mental leap.) The incredibly skilled cave painters followed a very specific set of conventions, worked collectively and "chose to paint animals that had a special place in their culture." As Curtis notes, the oldest paintings "have all the refinement, subtlety, and power that great art has had ever since."

For centuries, cave art was ignored or dismissed as a clever prank. But in 1879, a Spanish scholar named Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola had a eureka moment when he was poking around in a cave called Altamira in Spain. He was overwhelmed by paintings of life-size bison on the cave's ceiling; this was, writes Curtis, "the first time we know of that an artist from the distant Stone Age touched the soul of a modern person." When Sautuola tried to publicize his findings, which linked the art to discoveries of prehistoric tools and carvings found on horns and other hard surfaces, archaeologists turned on him, mocking his conclusions with a savage fury. The great debate was on, and the theories and counter theories haven't stopped since. Curtis deftly leads us on a tour of contending interpretations, although some of the terms can be rather arcane.

Not everyone was put off by Sautuola's daring assertions. Indeed, one of his fiercest critics, Émile Cartailhac, France's leading prehistorian, eventually came around after more and more cave art was discovered in the 1890s. Teaming up with Henri Breuil, a young priest and student of cave art, he published the ur-text of cave painting, La Caverne d'Altamira à Santillane, in 1906. Illustrated with Breuil's stunning reproductions (works of art in their own right), their utilitarian arguments turned on analogies to modern Stone Age tribes -- like Australia's Aborigines -- who used similar art, such as rock painting, as a kind of "hunting magic." For example, just as Australian tribes "used abstract signs in their art as symbols of real objects," the geometric figures in Altamira "are also some images of some device, of a weapon."

This hunting magic thesis hardly settled anything. In fact, the discovery of Lascaux in 1940, with its magnificent Hall of Bulls, completely upset hunting-oriented interpretations. For one thing, reindeer were the primary source of food for the people who lived around Lascaux, yet no paintings of reindeer were found in the cave.

Around the same time, another of Curtis's obsessive scholars, a Frenchman named Max Raphael, went on the attack. The ethnographic approach of Breuil and Cartailhac was off the mark, Raphael charged; we must take an art historical approach and look at the cave paintings in terms of pictorial space. In Altamira, for example, what seemed a bunch of random figures was actually a single composition precisely grouped around a central axis. What's more, to call cave art "primitive" was plain ridiculous. The culture of the Paleolithic era, "in the throes of a continuous process of transformation," was every bit as dynamic as ancient Greece or Rome, claimed Raphael, and this is reflected in the cave art.

Other scholars have resorted to statistical analysis, as well as linking the different animals and signs to male and female principles, to interpret the paintings. Still, consensus remains elusive. The latest uproar, subject of Curtis's last and perhaps most fascinating chapter, turns on whether cave art was the creation of tribal shamans "trying to reproduce the visions they saw while in a magic trance," an argument that has provoked heated rebuttals. One critic snorted, "If we believe that the Paleolithic art in the caves is based on the trance, we should pack our bags and go home." With more provocative theories surely on the way, it is certain we will be arguing about these glorious creations for many years to come. ·

Matthew Price is a critic and freelance journalist living in Brooklyn.

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