Sunday, May 29, 2011

Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave / Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire -- NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1996

After seeing Werner Herzog's film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I was moved to check out a book about the Chauvet Cave. Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave was at my fingertips, so it filled the bill more or less well enough. The authors are the three spelunkers who discovered Chauvet Cave. The text is mostly an colloquial account of the day of their discovery and the efforts they made to protect the cave from damage before they revealed its whereabouts to the French authorities. The writing style clearly expresses the discover's excitement and their dedication to protecting what has turned out to be the oldest know painting in the world. Carbon dating indicates that the oldest images may have been created about 31,000 years ago.

The most thrilling aspect of the book is, however, the photographs of the artwork itself. There are eighty in all. The images are of extremely high quality, allowing the viewer to study the finest details of the work. The cave is decorated with images of rhinoceroses, lions, mammoths, horses, bison, bears, reindeer, aurochs, ibex, stags, a panther, and what is guessed to be a hyena. Among the most unusual depictions is a great horned owl that was etched into the side of the cave and a human figure with the head of a bison which according to the authors, "evokes the 'sorcerers' of Les Trois-Freres in the Ariege and Gabillou in the Dordogne," two other decorated caves. There are also a number of other animal figures that at the time of publication had not been identified with any particular species.

The art itself has, of course, a significant degree of stylistic similarities; however, many of the drawings are roughly executed and many are stylized, but an amzaing number show a remarkable realism and sensitivity to perspective and the anatomy of the subject. With the exception of a small number of etched figures, they are all drawn in black charcoal or red ochre. Many employ delicate shading.

Along with the art, a rich store of bones, mostly cave bear bones, were found in the cave. The authors provide some discussion of their significance, but the it's no surprise that these relics are little more than an interesting diversion from the main event.

This particular edition of Dawn of Art was published not much more than a year after the cave's discovery. Another paperback edition was released some five years later. While the work does a fine job showing us the art, one is left with a desire to read about the conclusions that art historians and archaeologist have drawn in the 17 years since the cave's discovery.

Herzog's film Cave of Forgotten Dreams provides a wonderful experience of the art as we view it in a large scale in a darkened theatre, but re-examining fine art book reproductions shows us what the film cannot and allows us to linger over specific images that repay close, extended attention.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams: a film directed by Werner Herzog (2010)

On December 18, 1994, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Eliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaier discovered a cave in southeastern France, now known as Chauvet Cave. Within it were numerous paleolithic cave painting. Carbon dating suggests that these paintings are thirty-two thousand years old, making them the oldest paintings in existence. The fragility of these paintings prompted the French authorities to immediately seal the cave entrance and prohibit entry by anyone except for a small group of scientists, archaeologist, and art historians. Acclaimed director Werner Herzog, however, received a special exemption from this prohibition in order to make his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The film is a ponderous examination of the paintings and their significance. Prominent in the film is the awe that the paintings inspire in the film makers and the scientists alike. Herzog treats us to extended shots of the rapt faces of his party and their minders as they move through the cave. Eventually, it seems a clumsy trick to impress upon the film viewer the profundity of the art. It is, however, consistent with the attitudes expressed by the scientists who are interviewed for the film.

Two other film techniques succeed only partially. The hand held camera and minimal spot lighting that moves across the walls of the cave provides a rough imitation of how the art may have been seen when it as lit by paleolithic torches; however, it would seem some other technology might have been used to more accurately depict this impression. The images are also accompanied by an original score by Ernst Reijseger. As with the rapt faces of Herzog's crew, the music attempts to elevate the film's subject to a lofty spiritual plane, but it is too often overbearing and distracting. A more apt musical sound track might have made use of the simple flutes and percussion instruments that might have been in use by the painters' culture. Alternatively, the quiet of the cave itself may have been more effective than Reijseger's score.

Unsurprisingly, the most impressive aspects of the film are the paintings themselves. These are shown to greatest effect toward the end of the film. Viewing these paintings in a darkened theatre is far more effective than seeing tiny photographs in a handful of art books which up to now has been the best way for the public to see them.

Herzog's fascination with the spiritual significance of art and how it connects us to humans living tens of thousands of years ago is endearing and certainly thought provoking; however, more could have been achieved if he had provided us with a fuller explanation of what the painters' culture was probably like and more explanation of how the images came about. Perhaps the most fascinating interlude in this regard was when we are told that the work of a single artist can be found in various parts of the cave. We know this because some of the markings were made by a hand smeared with ochre. The pinky finger of this hand was distinctively crooked.

The film is being shown in both a 2D and a 3D version. Having only seen the 2D version, I cannot comment on the effectiveness of the 3D version, though it is purported that the 3D camera is better able to convey the contours of the cave walls which are integral to the art itself.

In all, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a lovely chance to experience a most amazing archaeological discovery that would otherwise be unavailable. Herzog should be congratulated to taking on the project. It is well worth seeing, despite its shortcomings.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chandogya Upanishad in The Thirteen Principle Upanishads -- London: Oxford University Press, 1954

Along with the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the Chandogya Upanishad is perhaps the oldest of the Upanishads. The Upanishads make up the literary form that completes the sacred literature known as the Vedas. They express the general philosophical and theological positions that are implicit within the earlier Vedic literature.

The Vedas are divided into four groupings, the Rigveda, the Samaveda, the Yajurveda, and the Atharvaveda. Each of these are associated with Vedic schools which preserved the literature. Some of these schools also preserved Upanishads that express ideas consonant with their pariticular Veda. The Tandins preserved the Samaveda and the associated Chandogya Upanishad.

Perhaps the most famous passage from the Chandogya Upanishad is "that art thou." This expresses one of the most significant ideas in all of the Vedas, that there is no distinction between subject and object. The Chandogya Upanishad clearly stakes out an answer to the problem of the one and the many which asks whether the universe is most fundamentally a unity or a plurality. Not only does the Chandogya Upanishad come down on the side of monism, it identifies the substance of that monism as mind.

Of course, there is a sense that the mind is separate from the external world and that it is an individual among other minds; however, the truth, according to the Chandogya Upanishad is that this is an illusion masking reality. Famously, that reality is betokened by the word or symbol "om."

The content of the Chandogya Upanishad is similar to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. It is, however, less cohesive and direct than the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and seems to emphasize the esoteric, apostolic character of the Upanishads. The word "upanishad" is often translated two ways: first, as "secret knowledge," but also as something like "to sit at the feet of." The Chandogya Upanishad contains numerous stories of secret knowledge being passed on from teacher to pupil and in this respect is a literary enactment of upanishadic teaching.