[This is part II of the essay, for part I click here]

I recently attended two unrelated events concerning Chauvet: a research seminar given by Professor Whitney Davis entitled Images, Pictures and Prehistories, and a day-long workshop as part of the AHRC project, Cognitive and Aesthetic Values in Cultural Artefacts, led by members of the Department of Philosophy; both at the University of York. Although these events were valuable and to a greater extent the inspiration for this article, I noticed from my perspective as an art-history student that the speakers would often refer to the cave paintings in ways that were art-historically uninformed, and the discipline was virtually unrepresented in discussions.


Illustration by the author

It was an oversight that no art historians spoke at the Cognitive and Aesthetic Values workshop, only archaeologists and philosophers. This meant that there was little visual analysis of the images, but also that people would often make comments without realising that their words were embedded in specific art-historical discourses. For example, comments were frequently made to the effect that there is something particularly real or direct about the paintings in Chauvet, that they have ‘a kind of honesty’ about them that ‘lets us connect’, or in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Chauvet’s curator Dominique Baffier comments that ‘the images become audible to us’, that you can hear the lions growling and the clatter of the horses’ hooves. These comments go together with a widespread unwillingness to call the paintings art – as if ‘art’ is a homogenous and precisely defined category anyway – instead suggesting that they are more genuine and essential, not artificial. For instance the hand-out from the Cognitive and Aesthetic Values workshop described Chauvet’s paintings as ‘proto-art’ – whatever that is – and Whitney Davis argued that they are not pictures because the Chauvet bison, for example, represent not other pictures of bison but, as he memorably termed it, ‘the bisonic’.

These perceptions that the paintings in Chauvet are somehow real, honest and essential are clearly not based on observation. The images are actually marked by considerable undisguised artifice, displaying stylisation and even caricature, as in the distinctive ears of several of the rhinos that are jauntily pricked up, and the oversized feet of a baby mammoth that exaggerate the gangly new-born’s misproportion. It is also apparent that the images participate in a well-developed artistic tradition, as evidenced by the appearance of the Palaeolithic ‘Venus’ imagery, and the interest in outline and silhouette comparable to other Palaeolithic cave paintings.

Instead these comments are drawn osmotically from the discourses of modernism and particularly relating to its preoccupation with ‘primitive’ art. At the beginning of the twentieth-century, a group of avant-garde artists, including Derain, Matisse and Picasso, began to collect and study sculptures from Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, and unlike previous western collectors they regarded them not as ethnographic curiosities but as art. In this they were reacting against bourgeois art, to which they saw ‘primitive’ art as antithetical, embodying the modernist ideals of purity, freeness and expressiveness. This was closely linked to formalism and the notion that an artwork has a self-contained, universal essence, transcending all cultures and ages. Uninhibited by corrupt civilization, it was supposed that so-called primitive art captured this essence more directly. Although these ideas have since been extensively critiqued, they resonate unmistakeably in the comments on Chauvet.

The influence of modernism on people’s reception of prehistoric art is well illustrated by the tale, tritely repeated whenever cave paintings are mentioned, of how Picasso visited the cave of Lascaux and emerged with the words, ‘we have learnt nothing’. There is a similar account of how he went to see the cave of Altamira and remarked, ‘after Altamira, all is decadence’, and on a visit to an unspecified cave, ‘none of us can paint like this’. It seems that the most canonical of modernist masters was keen on touring the prehistoric cave-art of Europe delivering aphorisms, except for the fact that there is no evidence that Picasso ever visited a prehistoric cave and the sources of these frequently-quoted lines are unknown. Whether or not Picasso was actually interested in prehistoric cave paintings probably matters only to Picasso scholars, but the fact that the apocrypha exist speaks eloquently about the way that people want to understand prehistoric art.

Happily, none of the above quotations appear in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, yet Picasso does get a mention. This is by Dominique Baffier in connection with the woman and bison painting. She likens it to Picasso’s pictures of women and minotaurs, saying that it is a ‘myth that has endured until our days’. This comparison is irrelevant. Picasso’s minotaurs are situated firmly in the political context of the early-twentieth century; they draw on classical mythological subjects, particularly the Cretan Minotaur and Europa and the Bull, to allude to the brutality of war-wracked Europe. Even if we accept that the images are similar, which is questionable, they cannot share the same meaning in two irreconcilably different contexts. Rather Baffier’s comment attempts to valorise the prehistoric painting through the ubiquitous association with Picasso and to present it as being familiar and relatable, though really it is not.

The commentary on Chauvet that I found the most insightful was Herzog’s, which is surprising given that at both Chauvet-related events I attended Cave of Forgotten Dreams was recommended as a good way to get an idea of what it is like inside the cave, but with the caveat that Herzog says some pretty absurd things. In fact he refrains from rampant speculation, is refreshingly frank about the fact that we can know virtually nothing about the art in Chauvet, and recognises that the only honest way to talk about the paintings is through his own subjective impressions. I assume that the section of the film that was considered absurd – which, scanning through film reviews on the internet, it appears that a lot of people disliked – is the postscript with the crocodiles. It is admittedly unconventional but I thought it was an inspired end to the film, so I am going to copy Herzog and also end with crocodiles, and a defence of their pertinence for Chauvet.

The film is drawing to a close. The crew have finished their work in the cave and we find ourselves back in the valley where we started. The focus changes to become more reflective with the comments of Jean-Michel Geneste, Director of the Chauvet Cave Research Project, on the function of art as inscribed communication, noting that humans are still inventing new technologies to communicate better, ‘like this camera, for example’, he says pointing. We resume the spectacular aerial shots of the valley that had opened the film, except now, in light of Geneste’s comment, we are made aware of the technology employed: we hear the whirring of the small remote-controlled helicopter and see the film crew watching it descend and stepping forward to catch it. Then the screen goes dark and the postscript begins.

Herzog explains that there is a nuclear power plant nearby, from which surplus hot water is directed to a tropical greenhouse where crocodiles are kept. We see the image of a mutant albino crocodile paddling in its tank, refracted and distorted in the water so that it dissipates into its own flickering reflections. This not only recalls visually the ambiguous outlines of the cave paintings, but also the viewer’s sense, on being confronted with them, of occupying a warped perspective from which we are incapable of understanding; at times you can catch a glimpse of something recognisable and relatable, but then the impression is unsettled and it turns to unfamiliarity. Over these images Herzog muses:

Nothing is real, nothing is certain. It is hard to decide whether or not these creatures here are dividing into their own doppelgangers. And do they really meet – or is it just their own imaginary mirror reflection? Are we today possibly the crocodiles who look back into an abyss of time when we see the paintings of Chauvet cave?

This is the best and only way to end the film. People can analyse the prehistoric paintings through the lenses of archaeology, anthropology, philosophy, and art, can develop theories and indulge in speculations, but eventually all lines of enquiry lead to the same gaping absence. Any study of a cultural artefact that does not put it in the context of the culture that made it will inevitably fail, and virtually every aspect of Palaeolithic culture is irretrievably lost. Consequently when we look at the art of Chauvet, we find ourselves in the place of the mutant crocodiles swimming in a pool of reflections we cannot locate, and gazing helplessly at the impression of an absent hand. But it is this discomfiting enigma that makes the cave so fascinating and alluring; the greatest pleasure in art is not to understand it but to be drawn into the profundity of its possibilities.